Since she based the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976, creative director Jackie Taylor has made eradicating racism by means of theater arts the establishment’s mission. She’s penned greater than 100 unique musicals towards that finish, utilizing the lives and music of everybody from Josephine Baker to Isaac Hayes to sentence racism and rejoice inclusion.
With “Legends The Musical: A Civil Rights Motion, Yesterday, As we speak and Tomorrow,” that mission assertion stays the identical, however in type and substance, Taylor’s gotten a complete lot extra direct in addressing it.
The place earlier BET productions entertained and educated, “Legends” entertains and confronts — the factor of fake is gone. Written and directed by Taylor, the manufacturing doesn’t filter the dialogue by means of music superstars. It delivers it through direct handle, straight on the viewers, typically with the home lights partially up and the actors addressing one another by title.
“The republic is on the snapping point,” Taylor’s script asserts, and it looks like she’s sending up a flare.
“We’re in a really sick interval of American historical past proper now,” says ensemble member Blake Hawthorne close to the highest of the present. Trump is particularly named because the architect of the illness, the dialogue cataloguing a roster of statistics: variety of youngsters separated from their households, variety of new white supremacist teams, variety of unarmed African People killed by legislation enforcement.
It’s vital to emphasize that “Legends” a musical revue, not a political screed. For sheer leisure worth, the present is strong. Music director Robert Reddrick’s band is a marvelously rhythmic, rollicking bunch and Taylor’s solid sounds superb. Among the many highlights, “Ball of Confusion” (carried out by Blake Reasoner), “On a regular basis Folks” (Vincent Jordan), “Think about” (Colleen Perry) and “Rise Up” (Jasmine Bomer) sizzle and soar with galvanizing energy.
Daybreak Bless and Dwight Neal are the solid’s charismatic vocal anchors (“Guides”), they usually gentle up the stage whether or not through the sobering “We Should Bear in mind” (Bless) or the buoyant “One Love” (Neal). Each ensemble member will get a second to shine. Jordan asks all the correct questions with “What’s Going On”; Hannah Mary Simpson pours her silvery soprano into “Heroes”; Reasoner leads “A Change Is Gonna Come” with easy dance strikes and wealthy pipes.
The music is interspersed with monologues. MJ Rawls, a dancer of nice class and style, movingly describes her journey from self-loathing adolescent to proud transwoman, culminating with a wonderful chorus from Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Lady” and an excellent rendition of “Stand by Me.” No one truly says “Can I get an amen up in right here?,” however it’s clearly warranted.
Equally stop-in-your-tracks-memorable: Stewart Romeo as Nat Turner, the kid prodigy and slave who turned a charismatic preacher and led one the bloodiest uprisings of the pre-Civil Conflict South. Romeo barely raises his voice, however it looks like Turner is screaming.
“Legends” is one in every of at the very least 4 exhibits at the moment operating in Chicago that title of victims of police brutality or lynching. (“As we speak it’s known as police brutality. Yesterday it was known as lynching,” says Taylor’s script.) At BET, DJ Douglass’ projection design sparkles by means of a prolonged array of names and faces, becoming a member of ranks with TimeLine’s “Kill Transfer Paradise,” The Goodman’s “graveyard shift” and Steep Theatre’s “Unhappy Songs for Misplaced Boys” in addressing police brutality. Because the projections proceed, Taylor’s dialogue explains what every individual was doing after they died: Strolling residence. Promoting cigarettes. Taking part in in a park. Watching TV. Sleeping.
There are celebratory lists, too, together with a pantheon of black inventors and leaders, their accomplishments (first profitable open-heart surgical procedure, inventor of the mailbox, chief of the Stonewall rebellion) serving as a surge of defiant hope. The montage of heroes spans centuries, from 18th century abolitionist/inventor Josiah Henson to Saint Sabina activist/priest Father Michael Pfleger). When Harriet Tubman stares out from the display, you may’t assist however ponder what she’d do now.
Tellingly, Taylor forgoes her common sparkly robes and fits for costumes, as an alternative outfitting the solid in easy black ensembles, every one subtly signaling the character of the performer sporting it. Bek Lambrecht’s set incorporates a raised platform and little else. Lemond Hayes’ choreography eschews flash and drama, however tells tales as clearly because the spoken dialogue.
Proper earlier than curtain name, Taylor calls for the viewers take a pledge. The phrases scroll throughout the projection display, so the viewers can communicate it aloud. You’ll be able to take it or not. What you gained’t have the ability to do is ignore it.
Catey Sullivan is a neighborhood freelance author.