Tuesday November 21st 2017

“Living The Black Renaissance”

I love the work of Black Ensemble Theater! I must preface this review by starting with this statement. Over the years, Jackie Taylor, the creator of this amazing theater company has done wonders and has brought to light the biographies of many of the larger-than-life African-American artists that all of America has learned to love ( more often than not  Ms. Taylor’s story-telling is not why the people show up. It is the music of these personalities that brings them into the theater).

The current production on the stage of The  Black Ensemble Theater is a jump away from what we are used to. When I say, “we”, I am not speaking to the theater people who attend on the openings, or even the “white audiences” who over the years have adored her work and the talent that she finds. I am speaking to the general population seeking a night of entertainment by attending the theater. While I understand the motivation for Ms Taylor  to create a piece such as “Living The Black Renaissance/ a Musical Resistance Against Racism”, it may be a difficult sale for this theater to get the public to attend.

Granted, those who do attend will bear witness to a highly emotional, educational experience that tells the story of the struggles, trials and tribulations of those who fought the fight against oppression for hundreds of years. Her thoughts were to make sure that our younger theater-goers would have the opportunity to learn more through her music ( she penned the majority of the songs in this musical piece) and narratives about the experience , in order to allow them to step forward and be heard. Black or White, or of any color, makes no difference. There has always been racial injustice in America, land of democracy and free speech! But just what has it cost many in order to get that “free speech?”.

This two -hour, historical record of the movement called the “Renaissance”, in reality “The Black Renaissance” has the ensemble members looking back at history and how some of the things that transpired made the”racism” become a standard. Her concept, of which I am certain, was designed with the thought that those who watch it will open discussion with others and perhaps start the ball rolling to end racism in the near future. As a young man, I watched much of this happen and while today claims to be better than the 1950’s and 1970’s, It is far from the ideal. By the way, this is NOT true of only the African-Americans, but people of all “color” and religious background.  Like any other major problem, we cannot fix it by running away from it or ignoring it. It will not go away on its own.

We must respect the problem. What is it, precisely? Why does it exist, yet today? How can Americans (at least those who are striving for that perfection we had hoped for) work together to accomplish in  today’s world of ridding itself of the problem, once and for all ? Jackie Taylor is a marvelous talent as well as a great role model for her community. Ms Taylor has brought many young talented people to the eye of the Chicago theater scene with her Black Ensemble Theater, a training ground for some wonderful actors/singers/dancers. She is loved and beloved, but this show may not be loved by those who love and adore her!

In one of her scenes, the actors discuss overcoming “Racism” by facing it and educating others. Easier said than done! In fact, in the dialogue, they say that the people who are “racists’, often do not think they are, thus they will not think that what is being said refers to them, so will they listen? Even more importantly, will they come? One of the lines in that scene is “I am not going to a play that has “racism” in the title!

As I said at the very start of this review. I LOVE Black Ensemble Theater, and if this particular program was not one that comes right at you, based on the talent in it and the production itself ( a sure FIVE STARS) the rating would be much greater and I would be suggesting that everyone attend. I do feel that people who need to, or want to learn more about the plight and history of the slaves/African-Americans and their  465 year fight for freedom should find a way to see this beautiful , sensitive production.

Written and directed by Ms Taylor, her cast of all-stars is composed of  Rhonda Preston ( a true belter that will knock your sox off), Dwight Neal ( with a vocal range that seems impossible, as he hits notes that no adult should be able to), Ruebem D. Echoles ( the associate director of the theater and quite the dance man), Levi Stewart Jr., the lovely Lynn Solar, Gregory “Henri” Slater, Lekeya Shearrill ( a newcome to BE, who I am sure will become a regular), Linnea Norwood, a veteran at BE who can truly dance as well as sing, Lemond A. Hayes (who many will recall from the last show, “Hip-Hop” and his amazing dancing),  Brian Boller, Michael Adkins and Ms Janaah Coates, another newcomer to BE, who I am sure will return. These are the energetic ensemble members, with the exception of one Mr. Wendell Jackson who plays the elder in this production. Mr. Jackson may be up in number of years on this planet, but when it comes to stage presence, he is just a young man, grabbing his audience and squeezing them for all their worth. Powerful!

This production is all about the talent and the story. The set is nothing of importance- just levels with a white background allowing us to see some videos from time to time and the music handled as always by  Robert Redrick and his great  quartet are as always, solid! By the way, with the exception of “Oh, Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome”, all of the songs were written by Ms Taylor as well. The titles may help you see the direction of the saga; “Renaissance”, :”I’m Walking, Talkin, Prayin About Freedom”, “Let’s Go Down The River”, “The Color of Your Mind” ( this one says a great deal),, “How Long You Gonna Run?”, “The Slave Syndrome Blues” and so many more. Many will make you feel that you are attending a prayer meeting, and that is okay. These people had to pray, everyday, to stay alive and remain with their families (other races and nationalities have had similar experience, so this production is not simply “Black & White”).

I would love to hear from you. “Living The Black Renaissance” will continue at Black Ensemble Theater, located at 4450 N. Clark Street through November 26th with performances as follows:

Thursdays  7:30 p.m.

Fridays  8 p.m.

Saturdays  3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Sundays  3 p.m.

Tickets run $55 and $65 and can be purchased at the box office, by calling 773-769-4451 or online at www.blackensemble.org

Running time is approx., 2 hours with a 10 minute intermission.

Students, seniors and  groups can save 10%

Indoor garage valet parking is right next door ( I think it is $10 or $11)

Metered parking is free on Sundays. There are no zones indicated on the streets in the area that are not metered. Of course , public transportation can get you right to the door.

To see what others are saying ( and to be sure, this one will have a mixed reaction), visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Living The Black Renaissance”

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