By Jackie Taylor.
Directed by Daryl D. Brooks.
Musical Direction by Robert Reddrick.
At Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago.
A Musical Homage to a Sex Icon of Soul.
Continuing its 40th Anniversary Season’s playlist of greatest hits, Black Ensemble Theater opened Jackie Taylor’s I Am Who I Am this week, yet another musical homage to one of America’s legendary Soul singers, this time Teddy Pendergrass. Featuring some very fine vocal performances accompanied by the Black Ensemble Band, the production takes us through Pendergrass’ musical career, from his time with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in the early ‘70s all the way up through his “Teddy 25” performance in 2007. Shining the blinding light of grace and gratitude, the play side-shuffles the dark side of Pendergrass’ personal tragedies, making it a consummate feel-good tribute that will delight long-time fans and likely entertain newcomers with an appreciation for or openness to Soul music.
I Am Who I Am starts with Young Teddy Pendergrass (Deverin Deonte) as a member of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, circa 1975. Melvin (Vincent Jordan), portrayed as a comically egomaniacal lead singer, is determined to keep the band together and press his somber Blue Notes on to greater and richer fame (for himself). Young Teddy, however, has other plans; he recognizes his worth and goes to Leon Huff (Rueben Echoles) and Kenny Gamble (Trequon Tate), producers of Philadelphia International Records, to leverage his talent for a solo career. Unwilling to see their prospective star bail ship for CBS, Huff & Gamble acquiesce, thus beginning Pendergrass’ ascendancy to the Soul hall of fame.
From there, we see Young Teddy begin to navigate his newfound stardom after the release of his first solo album in 1977. On the stage he is a lusty sex symbol; behind the curtain, he is a passionate man in search of a lifelong love. While we get to see first-hand Young Teddy’s immaculate character and voice, we also get to hear about Teddy from his loving and God-fearing mother Ida Pendergrass (Rhonda Preston) — whose heavenly vocals, we hear, are on-par with Teddy’s own. Like Teddy, she gives all the glory of his success to God, who has continually blessed both of them, in good times and tragedy.
The Second Act features more vocal performances and less story exposition. After signing the honest and determined Shep Gordon (Brett Tewell) as his talent agent, Teddy matures into his voice in the ‘80s (played then by Rashawn Thompson). After reaching the top of the top, however, tragedy strikes, and Pendergrass is rendered a paraplegic. Fast-forward to his comeback in 1985, and the ever-optimistic Pendergrass is again assumed to glory by his fans. The production then closes with a glimpse at his 2007 concert commemorating the 25th anniversary of his accident; with a special guest performance by Patti LaBelle (Kora Kishé Green) that is as glorious as it is hysterical, it is a send-off worthy of a legend.
I Am Who I Am, much like the rest of Jackie Taylor’s current seasonal offerings, is a virtual beatification of a saint of Soul: Teddy Pendergrass’ “story” is as bleached clean as the pope’s linens. This likely will not upset those who choose to attend for the music and spectacle, but for anyone looking for some honest-to-life dramatic conflict, search on: true to its title, this production is what it is and makes no apologies.
Nevertheless, absent a compelling emotional arc, Taylor does well to camouflage most of her exposition in this biopic and Brooks directs it into a fun and entertaining show: with plenty grunts of assent at God’s praise and guffaws of gaiety at Teddy’s provocative hip-thrusts, they sure know their audience.
A musical production of this type thrives or dives by its vocal performances, and I Am Who I Am definitely thrives soulfully. I’m not one for Soul music, but the living, rhythmic, sensual presence of the music on stage had me tapping my feet in pleasure. Both Teddys, Deonte and Thompson, are wonderful, particularly when they step off the stage to serenade and seduce audience members. Preston, as Ida Pendergrass, is phenomenal in her early show-stopping rendition of “A Mother’s Love.” And, again, Kora Kishé Green as Patti LaBelle is flat-out jaw-dropping.
I Am Who I Am is more Soul than story, and without much contextual, story relevance to the music, one’s appreciation of Pendergrass’ songs is either personal or aesthetic. Its deficiency of actual drama notwithstanding however, this musical concert-qua-theatrical production is still high on entertainment if you’re partial to Soul music. Just don’t expect any dark and juicy revelations: this show’s all feel-good praise.
Reviewed on 2 October 2016.
For more info checkout the I Am Who I Am: The Story of Teddy Pendergrass page at theatreinchicago.com.
Playing at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago. Tickets are $55 for Thursdays and Saturday matinees, and $65 for Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees. For tickets and information, call the Black Ensemble Theater box office at 773-769-4451, or visit BlackEnsemble.org. Performances are Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through October 30th. Running time is 3 hours minutes with one 15-minute intermission.