By Jackie Taylor
Directed by Rueben D. Echoles
Musical Direction by Robert Reddick
Produced by Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago
The Divas Walk among Us
2016 will mark the Black Ensemble Theater’s fortieth anniversary, and their upcoming season looks set to be a fantastic retrospective. The Uptown/Ravenswood-based company, which is still led by its founder, Jackie Taylor, is reviving several of its most popular shows, with rewrites to keep them contemporary. The first, which they’ll be running through the New Year, is Dynamite Divas, a revue paying homage to Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson, Gladys Knight, and Roberta Flack. Featuring many familiar faces among the company members and musicians, led by drummer Robert Reddick, and under the direction of Rueben Echoles, Dynamite Divas is the quintessential Black Ensemble show: dazzling costumes, an amusing book, great respect for history, a big heart, and phenomenal singing.
The show opens with Rueben Echoles in the part of Mr. Maurice, a shady, secretive billionaire who has lured the four divas to him with promises of millions of dollars each, if they agree to sing in his live concert scheduled for that night, at which he will demonstrate a world-changing invention. As Roberta Flack (Melanie McCullough), Nancy Wilson (Rhonda Preston), Gladys Knight (Rashada Dawan), and Aretha Franklin (Shari Addison) arrive, he leads them to the “holding tanks” in the Diva Development Rehearsal Space, a marble and steel lair designed by CoCo Ree Lemery, which contains satellite images of countries around the world. The divas ask Mr. Maurice why, out of all the great black female artists, he’s requested their presence, and he responds that Diana Ross asked too many questions, but that if they indulge him with private rehearsals of their historical hits, he’ll give them bonuses.
Is this directorial self-indulgence? Sure, but it’s fun, and provides the women with emotional context for their songs. Dawan starts the revue portion off well with the energetic, but dark, “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.” Mr. Maurice says the divas should draw inspiration from the past, as well, and uses his hologram machine to conjure Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Nina Simone, played by the ensemble, to perform “God Bless the Child,” “This Bitter Earth,” and “Mississippi Goddam,” to the nostalgic delight of the audience. The performers channel the distinctive energy of these artists, and I was particularly impressed by Preston, as Wilson, singing “How Glad I Am,” since I’ve been impressed by her many times at Black Ensemble, but never heard her sing in that style. Flack’s memories of her dear and talented, but severely mentally ill collaborator, Donny Hathaway (Daniel Phillips), prompt a stirring “The Closer I Get to You,” which leads to a repurposed and deeply moving “Killing Me Softly.” Many of these songs greatly benefit from Reddick’s arrangements and the presence of live music, which makes them sound less specific to the 70s, and more unified with each other.
Of course, a show like this depends on the strength of the Queen of Soul, and Shari Addison, besides being hilarious, has a voice powerful enough to do Aretha Franklin proud. Her rousing “Respect” at the end of Act I is just a sample of what is to come in Act II, including Franklin’s cover of “Bridge over Troubled Water” and “Think,” which nobody could get enough of. One of the changes since Dynamite Divas’ debut in 2001 is that the featured singers have displayed more longevity, but also become institutions, and Taylor’s rewrite gives a nod to this by having ensemble member Cherise Thomas appear as Beyoncé, who has designs on Franklin’s title, and demands her proper place among the legends with her 2011 hit “Love on Top.” Though the divas and Mr. Maurice agree that Beyoncé won’t achieve true legend status until her music is picked up by a second generation, they encourage her, and muse on the importance of supporting their successors. It’s a wise writing choice on Taylor’s part. Dynamite Divas is the kind of show several generations in a family would enjoy going to together; it passes on knowledge of the living treasures, while respecting the contributions of younger artists. Many revues are powered by nostalgia, and Black Ensemble’s work consists largely of tributes to the old or deceased. But at the beginning of their fortieth season, Jackie Taylor’s company is embracing an exciting future, and preserving a place for the ancestors who shaped them.
Reviewed December 20, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Dynamite Divas’ page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N Clark Street, Chicago. Tickets are $55-65 with discounts for students, seniors, and groups; to order, call 773-769-4451 or visit blackensemble.org. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm through January 24, 2016 (no performances December 24, 25, 31, or January 1). Running time is two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission.