Women of Soul

At the Black Ensemble Theater

By Dan Zeff

 

Chicago—For decades the Black Ensemble Theater has presented musical tributes to African American music. Most of the shows have been good, some very good, but none that I have seen over the years is as good as the current “Women of Soul.”

        All BET musicals feature great singing, especially the female performers who possess some of the most powerful and expressive singing voices in Chicagoland theater. But “Women of Soul” outdoes itself, with a full nine women team of vocalists, all premium soloists. “Women of Soul” also has shed the awkward and ungainly book that sometimes inhibited past shows, also the awkward and self conscious opening moments could be rethought, as well as the “Old School/New School” bit that opened the second act and accomplished little. This time the emphasis is placed directly on displaying those great voices.

Photo credit: Alan Davis

        “Women of Soul” is a roll call of many of the great female singers—not just soul, but also rhythm and blues, gospel, pop, and jazz. There is no narrative arc, just a sequence of singers and their songs, mostly introduced with a succinct introductory bit of anecdotal biography. Then comes the superb singing by performers outfitted in the most elaborate and colorful costumes I’ve ever seen on at the BET (and some spectator wigs, to boot).

        The BET production, under Daryl Brooks’s fluent directing, spotlights about a dozen premium singers. Unfortunately, the playbill doesn’t pair up the BET to some of the ensemble with the various Women of Soul and their songs, but I can wholeheartedly express my appreciation for all of their performances, even if apologetically I can’t put names to the most incendiary performances.

        “Women of Soul” casts a pretty wide net in selecting the honorees for the celebration. The obvious choices are the black singers from the later 1900’s, but there is room for Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse, a nice gesture toward diversity for a concept that was otherwise all about African American vocalists. In anthologies like this there will always be omissions that may some disappoint viewers (no Dinah Washington?).

        Most of the selections are love songs, some happy and some suffering, but there is still room for a Big Mamma Thornton sound-alike to knock off “Hound Dog” and a Mahalia Jackson stand-in giving us a rich and moving slice of the great lady’s gospel vocalizing.

        But who can complain about more than two hours of Anita Baker, Etta James, Teena Marie (in a scorching duet with the single male in the cast), Janet Jackson, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, and Jill Scott. In the best closing number I have ever scene at the BET, the show offers a rocking tribute to Aretha Franklin by the nine belting women all dressed in gold sequined gowns.

                        Photo credit: Alan Davis

        The interest in the music is heightened by Brooks’s refusal to turn the show into a “Greatest Hits” recital. Of the more than 25 songs, only a handful are juke box material, though the numbers all became hits within the African American community at their first appearance. Many black members of the audience certainly showed their recognition and appreciation of songs totally unfamiliar to me. My loss. So the material will be fresh and absorbing to many ears in the audience.

        “Women of Soul” goes lightly on production values. The glitzy permanent set gives the show a nice nightclub feel. Drummer Robert Reddrick and his sterling five-man band are placed on a rear platform above the stage, from where they dispense their usual rocking accompaniment. The band also includes Adam Sherod and Dolpha Fowler Jr. on keyboards, Mark Miller on bass, and Gary Baker on guitar.

         The visuals rely on Rueben Echoles’s glorious costume assemblage (he did the infinite variety of wigs, too). Backstage must have been a maelstrom of activity because the women seemed to appear in new outfits practically every 30 seconds. Denise Karcazewski designed the dramatic lighting and David Samba the sound plan. Aaron Quick handled the production design, primarily evocative black and white portraits of the artists projected above the stage. This isn’t a dancing show but there is plenty of Motown-style choreographed movement created by Christopher Carter to complement the singing.

        Last and best is the roll call of the 10-member ensemble. I’ll lead off with Rhonda Preston, Cynthia Carter, and Robin DaSilva who carried much of the heavyweight vocalizing. But that isn’t to short change the star turns by Ariel Williams, Colleen Perry, Jayla Williams Craig, Jerica Exum, Jessica Seals, and Hannah Efsits. And props to Dwight Neal for the bits of acting he provided for the dispensable small playlets. Neal gets his star shot, bringing down the house as Rick James in the Teena Marie duet that leveled the house. A joyful evening!

The show gets a rating of

“Women of Soul”” runs through January 27 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $65. Call 773 769 4451 or visit www.blackensemble.org.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com               October 2018

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