At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: $55-$65; BlackEnsemble.org 773-769-4451. Runs through: Aug. 26
Since its debut in 1976, Black Ensemble Theater's fortune has rested on its docudramas celebrating the influence of African-American entertainers on our national culture, pursuant to "eradicating racism through art." After generating such good will for so long, isn't it about time that this bold theater company was given its own musical revue?
The gently "meta" framing device for this autobiography-on-stage is a humble one, absent the usual hoofers in yards of mylar and sequins. Instead, Bekki Lambrecht's scenic design reconfigures the stage into a replica of a vintage Chicago Blues club, modestly dubbed "Ricky's Place," and outfitted with cocktail tables, a bandstand at floor-level, a proprietor of the room ( "somewhere to play" constituting the third item on the musician's survival list ) and a coterie of loyal retainers.
These are played by longtime BET regulars, performing under their own names, who discuss the topics indigenous to their milieuold men chasing women, young women proclaiming independence, sad memories of hard times, gambling superstitions and marital troubles of all kinds. Among them is the heartwarming story of two next-door neighbors named Rick Stone and Jackie Taylor, who met in the Cabrini-Green Homes as children to become lifelong friends and fellow mainstays in the theater company founded by the latter.
After the club's band has strolled in for their sound check, the show is given over to a score of 33 songs selected with an eye to illustrating the range of compositions grouped under the "Blues" bannerdirges like "Ain't No Love In the Heart of the City," prayers like "Stay Around a Little Longer" and even a hint of torch in the Comden-Green "The Party's Over." ( "What are you singing that for? This is a Blues club!" protests Ricky. )
We also hear familiar barn-burners like "Got My Mojo Working" "Wild Wild Woman" and the Professor Longhair classic "Big Chief" as well as solo turns by mouth-harp virtuoso Lamont D. Harris, while Taylor's "What Kind of World Is This" supplies a touch of social commentary. The evening wouldn't be complete, though, without Stone himself, combining the vocal prowess of a parade marshal with the agile grace of a ballet master, commanding the spotlight with his trademark Howlin' Wolf impression. Woof!