WBEZ | Black Ensemble Theatre http://www.wbez.org/tags/black-ensemble-theatre Latest from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio en Black Ensemble Theater: Quo Vadis? http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-12-05/black-ensemble-theater-quo-vadis-94632 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2011-December/2011-12-06/day52.jpg" alt="" /><p><p>The major theater event of the last month, and one of the most important arts events of the year, was the November 18 opening of the Black Ensemble Cultural Center at 4450 N. Clark Street, the culmination of a long-held dream and 35 years of survival in a dicey business on the part of Black Ensemble founder and executive director, Ms. Jackie Taylor. Purpose-built from the ground up at a cost of $16 million (as announced at the groundbreaking in September, 2011) or $19 million (as reported at the time of the recent ribbon cutting), the facility includes a mainstage theater, a studio theater, rehearsal space, classrooms, public gallery space, and offices.</p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-December/2011-12-06/day52.jpg" style="width: 600px; height: 352px;" title="Construction wraps up on the Black Ensemble Cultural Center this fall. (Courtesy of Black Ensemble Theater)"></p><p>When the first shovel of earth was turned just 14 months ago, the line-up of notables in attendance featured Mayor Daley, Gov. Quinn, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, State Sen. Kwame Raoul and at least a dozen assorted aldermen, state representatives and foundation CEO’s and corporate honchos. Never have I seen more ducks lined up in a straighter row. The Black Ensemble Cultural Center was writ in the stars and Jackie Taylor appeared to be fulfilling her manifest destiny.</p><p>Now the new venture is up and running and the Big Question for me is addressed directly to Jackie, whom I’ve known since Day One of the Black Ensemble and maybe longer: When are you going to announce an innovative new artistic plan for your company?</p><p>To the disappointment of some, Taylor chose to open her dream venue by taking a step backwards and offering a new production of her eleven year old success, <a href="http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/2011-11-25/dueling-critics-black-ensemble-theater-revives-jackie-wilson-story-94336"><em>The Jackie Wilson Story</em></a> (running through January 8 and perhaps longer). To be sure, it’s as solidly-produced a show as the Black Ensemble always offers, and the talent on display and musical bang-for-the-buck it provides are splendid, as always. There are a cooking seven-piece band, gifted singers and dancers and a star who channels the biographical subject to an uncanny degree, as always.</p><p style="text-align: center;"><iframe allowfullscreen="" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/FiTso_d8CMo" width="480" frameborder="0" height="360"></iframe></p><p>And there’s the rub: “as always.” For the last decade or longer, the Black Ensemble has followed a tried-and-true formula of offering “greatest hits” musical biographies of many leading lights of Black music, chiefly drawn from blues, early rock and R&amp;B genres (although not always). The gala opening season Taylor has announced between now and next June offers five cookie-cutter shows, musical bios of Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and various Ladies of Soul (Aretha, Gladys, Diana, etc.).</p><p>But you don’t move into $16 million or $19 million of new facilities to keep on keepin’ on with the same old same-old. There have to be ambitions beyond a new playhouse and attached parking and more parking across the street. I know Jackie had such ambitions once upon a time, genuine artistic ambitions. And maybe now she needs to look to her own past in order to look forward. I’m certainly not the only one (heaven help me, I can’t be the only one!) who remembers when the Black Ensemble Theater produced serious African-American drama before August Wilson came along. Anyone recall when the troupe did plays by Ed Bullins and Lorraine Hansberry?</p><p>Taylor also produced, among many others, <em>Medea</em> by Euripides and <em>A Streetcar Named Desire</em>. I remember so clearly Jackie’s answer when I asked her “Why <em>Streetcar</em>?” in which she played Blanche Dubois. “It’s a role I’ve always wanted to play before I get too old, and no mainstream theater company is going to give me a chance to play it,” she said. A little vain, perhaps, but absolutely valid.</p><p>But where are those plays now? Where are the opportunities for the Black Ensemble’s gifted artists (although <em>not</em> an acting ensemble, despite the name) to appear in great plays of proven caliber? To take on classics and modern works of social and dramatic interest? To stretch their chops in mainstream repertory they probably won’t have a chance to play elsewhere? To do what the Black Ensemble used to do? To follow—quite literally—in Jackie Taylor’s footsteps?</p><p>I don’t say the Black Ensemble never should do a jukebox musical about a great popular artist. Its long string of biographical musical revues (which is what they are) has given employment and a spotlight to many, many, many people and certainly has kept the troupe alive at the box office. But the company no longer can justify such shows as its steady and only diet and live up to its name. Taylor herself has been involved in a majority of Black Ensemble productions as writer and/or director as well as producer, which hardly is an ensemble approach to art or to craft. The company’s Board of Directors has successfully raised a ton of money to provide Taylor with the facilities to do more, and now she needs to do it.</p><p>Yes, the Black Ensemble has various outreach and educational programs, but so does every other non-profit theater of any size or substance in town. And, yes, the Black Ensemble has a Black Playwrights Initiative, which offers various types of in-kind support for two dozen writers. However, the work coming out of this program and moving into production—at least so far—is standard Black Ensemble material: scripts for biographical musicals. These programs are costly for any theater company to maintain, large or small, but it’s completely counter-intuitive to support them by turning your mainstage series—the main event for any theater company—into a cash cow of repetitive audience-pleasing shows. A theater company has to take risks and lead its audience to challenging material.</p><p>In her message in the opening program, Ms. Taylor promises “African, Japanese and Mexican Culture in 2012 with some unique one-time performance programming” and that’s an OK start for a cultural center in a racially and ethnically diverse ‘hood such as Uptown. But it’s not the same as a fundamental and primary artistic commitment to better, more profound theater and the nurturing of a true ensemble in some form.</p><p>Some may say, “Gosh darn it, Jonathan, give them time! They’ve just opened their new doors. You can’t expect everything right away.” But the point is that I’m laying down a dare to Jackie Taylor and the Black Ensemble Theater and the Black Ensemble Cultural Center and its Board of Directors, and there really isn’t a good time to lay down a dare; you just do it. I’m not asking the impossible. I am asking Ms. Jackie Taylor, who is an exceedingly capable and determined individual, to be true to herself and the artist she has been.</p></p> Tue, 06 Dec 2011 04:50:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-12-05/black-ensemble-theater-quo-vadis-94632 Daily Rehearsal: Chicago Gay Men's Chorus' new season starts up http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-11-30/daily-rehearsal-chicago-gay-mens-chorus-new-season-starts-94464 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2011-November/2011-11-30/holiday11-square.png" alt="" /><p><p><span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,serif;"><strong>1. A review is in for <a href="http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-11-02/daily-rehearsal-sad-playwright-latest-theater-tumblr-93690"><em>Urlakis &amp; Cusick</em></a></strong></span></span>, <a href="http://timeoutchicago.com/arts-culture/comedy/15038995/review-of-the-week-urlakis-cusick-at-stage-773">described by Steve Etheridge</a> as "good, frenetic fun, but definitely not for the pure of heart. Set your conscience to standby and enjoy."</p><p><span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,serif;"><strong>2. Hubris Productions has <a href="http://www.hubrisproductions.com/all_childish_things.htm"><em>All Childish Things</em></a></strong></span></span> at Greenhouse. It's about a high-stakes robbery, but these stakes are not the normal ones, because what this group of friends wants to steal is <em>Star Wars</em> merchandise. "[W]hen the heist goes wrong, lives are threatened, secrets are revealed and the ultimate temptation threatens to tear these friends apart forever." Is it fair to assume this is a comedy because it's about stealing <em>Star Wars</em> memorabilia.&nbsp;</p><p><img alt="" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-November/2011-11-30/holiday11-square.png" style="margin-right: 10px; margin-top: 10px; margin-bottom: 10px; float: left; width: 300px; height: 300px;" title=""><span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,serif;"><strong>3. The Chicago Gay Men's Chorus' new season starts up</strong></span></span> this weekend; see them at the Athenaeum. The new show is called <a href="http://www.cgmc.org/event/2011/holly-follies"><em>Holly Follies</em></a>, and while you can sing-along to some tunes, expect Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr. and...Straight No Chaser's "Who Spiked the Eggnog?" Nothing if not diverse.</p><p><span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,serif;"><strong>4. Zac Thompson agrees <a href="http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-11-29/daily-rehearsal-shake-ups-neo-futurists-94427">with our Dueling Critics</a></strong></span></span> about&nbsp;<em>The Jackie Wilson Story</em>. "Black Ensemble isn't known for its spirit of experimentation," he writes in<a href="http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-jackie-wilson-story-at-black-ensemble/Content?oid=5052127"> his review</a> of the group's latest production. However, he takes it one step further, crediting that decision to executive director Jackie Taylor's leadership. "Taylor long ago discovered a workable formula and, by gum, she's sticking to it. Most of the shows in the company's 35-year history have been upbeat, biographical jukebox musicals about R&amp;B singers, and nearly all of those were written and directed by Taylor. (For a theater with the word "ensemble" in its name, BE looks an awful lot like a one-woman operation.)"</p><p><strong>5. Among the shows closing this weekend</strong>:&nbsp;<em>The 13 Clocks</em> from&nbsp;Lifeline Theatre;&nbsp;<em>A&nbsp;Behanding in Spokane&nbsp;</em>from Profiles Theatre (read <a href="http://www.theatreinchicago.com/news.php?articleID=665">this article by Mary Shen Barnidge</a>&nbsp;about the gruesome props they've got), <em>The Great Fire</em> (beautiful set),&nbsp;and <em>The Witches</em>.</p><p>Questions? Tips? Email <a href="mailto:kdries@wbez.org">kdries@wbez.org</a>.</p></p> Wed, 30 Nov 2011 17:44:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-11-30/daily-rehearsal-chicago-gay-mens-chorus-new-season-starts-94464 Daily Rehearsal: Shake-ups from the Neo-Futurists http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-11-29/daily-rehearsal-shake-ups-neo-futurists-94427 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2011-November/2011-11-29/ensemble2009-2-small.jpg" alt="" /><p><p><span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,serif;"><strong>1. Samantha Irby, our usually NSFW friend</strong></span></span> at <em>The Paper Machete</em>, <a href="http://timeoutchicago.com/arts-culture/books/15025409/samantha-irby">is profiled in the latest <em>TimeOut</em></a>. She's available if you want to take her out: "I’m hoping this article gets me laid." Direct quote. Learn more about Irby's loves (like New Kids on the Block) in <a href="http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-11-04/5-machete-questions-samantha-irby-nkotb-fan-93763">our <em>Machete</em> extra with her from a few weeks back</a>.</p><p><span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,serif;"><strong>2. A <a href="http://reviewsyoucaniews.blogspot.com/2011/11/sweet-confinement-sinnerman-theatre.html">new Review You Can Iews</a></strong></span></span> -- and this one comes with an A+ rating! In it, <a href="http://reviewsyoucaniews.blogspot.com/2011/11/sweet-confinement-sinnerman-theatre.html">John Moran compares</a> SiNNERMAN's <em>Sweet Confinement&nbsp;</em>to<em> The Walking Dead.</em></p><p><span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,serif;"><strong>3. At the Annoyance tonight at 9:30:<a href="http://www.annoyanceproductions.com/inaworld/"> <em>In A World</em></a></strong></span></span>, which "creates an entire universe of comic characters and situations" from one suggestion. So, improv. These characters are played by Aidy Bryant, Chris Day, Nancy Friedrich, T.J. Jagodowski, Conner O’Malley, Rebecca Sohn, Rich Sohn, Chris Witaske and special guests depending on the evening.</p><p><img alt="" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-November/2011-11-29/ensemble2009-2-small.jpg" style="margin-right: 10px; margin-top: 10px; margin-bottom: 10px; float: left; width: 300px; height: 200px;" title="(Photo by Andrew Collings)"><span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,serif;"><strong>4. A lot of news from the Neo-Futurists</strong></span></span>: you can now get advance reservations for <em>Too Much Light</em>, they'll have a New Year's show, and also special 23rd anniversary shows coming up. Of course, lots of catches with this news: The advance reservations are $20 (at least 5 more than usual) and not applicable on Friday and Saturday nights. And the New Year's show will include a toast and pizza (all for $50). They've ALSO welcomed new ensemble members:&nbsp;Brenda Arellano, Trevor Dawkins, Tif Harrison, and Leah Urzendowski.</p><p><span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,serif;"><strong>5. <a href="http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/2011-11-25/dueling-critics-black-ensemble-theater-revives-jackie-wilson-story-94336">Hear the Dueling Critics talk</a> all about Black Ensemble Theatre's new space</strong></span></span> -- and their new show,<em> The Jackie Wilson Story -- </em>on <em>Eight Forty-Eight </em>last week. While Jonathan Abarbanel says that there's always "a certain cookie cutter-ness" to their productions, and a selective history of the black experiencec about them, he praises Kelvin Rosten Jr.'s performance. Kelly Kleiman tells us that the new "space is beautiful" and is "really going to boost the attractiveness of the neighborhood", which is Uptown.</p><p>Questions? Tips? Email <a href="mailto:kdries@wbez.org">kdries@wbez.org</a>.</p></p> Tue, 29 Nov 2011 18:01:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-11-29/daily-rehearsal-shake-ups-neo-futurists-94427 Dueling Critics: Black Ensemble Theater revives 'The Jackie Wilson Story' http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/2011-11-25/dueling-critics-black-ensemble-theater-revives-jackie-wilson-story-94336 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/segment/photo/2011-November/2011-11-23/jackiewilsonbox.jpg" alt="" /><p><p>The holiday season generally comes along with a nice big helping of schmaltzy sentiment on the side; <em>It’s A Wonderful Life</em> anyone? But at the risk of sounding corny, there is a local story that lets its audience believe dreams really can come true. It only required more than three decades of hard work and perseverance.</p><p>Jackie Taylor is the driving force behind <a href="http://www.blackensembletheater.org/" target="_blank">Black Ensemble Theater</a>: She has just opened up the space of her dreams, one that aims to serve the company, the audience and the broader community. To christen their new Cultural Center, BET revived of one of its most successful productions, <a href="http://www.blackensembletheater.org/event/2" target="_blank"><em>The Jackie Wilson Story</em></a>. The <a href="http://www.wbez.org/series/dueling-critics" target="_blank"><em>Dueling Critics</em></a> Jonathan Abarbanel and Kelly Kleiman joined <em>Eight Forty-Eight</em> to examine whether the production packed as much soul as the lady who shepherded the new building into being.</p><p><em>The Jackie Wilson Story</em> plays through Jan. 8 at the new Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.</p><p><br> &nbsp;</p></p> Fri, 25 Nov 2011 07:20:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/2011-11-25/dueling-critics-black-ensemble-theater-revives-jackie-wilson-story-94336 The Don't-Miss List: Merce Cunningham's last hurrah http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-11-17/dont-miss-list-merce-cunninghams-last-hurrah-94102 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2011-November/2011-11-17/5187509060_37f4cde975(2).jpg" alt="" /><p><p><u><strong>Kelly Kleiman</strong></u></p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-November/2011-11-17/hunger.jpg" title="" width="550" height="198"></p><p style="text-align: left;">The weather outside may be frightful (or not--there's no knowing) but onstage at <a href="http://explorechicago.org/city/en/things_see_do/attractions/dca_tourism/jay_pritzker_pavilion.html">the Pritzker Pavilion</a> you can be snug and warm while enjoying concert readings of shows by Chicago companies. It's called the <a href="http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/provdrs/theater/news/2011/oct/_in_the_works_theaterlabseriesatmillenniumparkreturnsforathirdse.html">In The Works Theater Lab</a>, and it will open tonight (Thursday) at 7:30 p.m. with <a href="http://www.lifelinetheatre.com/performances/11-12/hunger/index.shtml">Lifeline Theatre's adaptation of <strong><em>Hunger</em></strong>.</a>&nbsp;This world premiere, which will receive a full production at Lifeline in February, is set during the World War II siege of Leningrad, a nearly unbelievable true story of people defying starvation to defend their country and future. The cast includes Lifeline stalwarts Peter Greenberg and Jenifer Tyler, who should be seen whenever and wherever they appear. Tickets for the reading, which runs only through Saturday, are $15; call 312-742-TIXS or go to <a href="http://explorechicago.org/city/en/millennium.html">millenniumpark.org</a>.&nbsp;</p><p>And if you'd like to do a little defending of country and future yourself, consider spending part of November 19 or 20 at the <a href="http://anti-stasis.org/post/12300905648/defend-occupy-chicago">benefit for the <strong>Occupy Chicago Legal Defense Fund</strong></a>.&nbsp; Beginning at 10 p.m. on Saturday and at 6 p.m. on Sunday at <a href="http://www.propthtr.org/">Prop Thtr</a>, 3502 North Elston, the benefit includes a mix of speeches, music, performance art and a 45 minute work in progress documentary about the Occupy Chicago movement. (Saturday night features <a href="http://www.thisamericanlife.org/contributors/beau-oreilly"><em>This American Life</em> contributor</a> and <a href="http://curioustheatrebranch.com/">Curious Theatre Branch</a> resident genius Beau O'Reilly, among others.) Pay what you can to attend, and/or purchase donated artwork to support the movement and its lawyers, who (as <a href="http://www.suite101.com/news/occupy-wall-street-court-allows-protesters-to-return-to-plaza-a396670">New York has just demonstrated</a>) have their hands full keeping speech free.</p><p><u><strong>Laura Molzahn</strong></u></p><p>As everyone knows (but <a href="http://timeoutchicago.com/arts-culture/dance/15011513/live-review-dance-chicago-2011-first-night">Zac Whittenburg discusses</a> with enviable skill), <strong><a href="http://www.dancechicago.com/">Dance Chicago</a></strong> is a complete crapshoot. Now in the third week of its 17th season, and featuring some 250 companies or choreographers, the fest this weekend consists of two “Urban Movement” shows. Translation: “flat-out fun hip-hop acts.” This is the first year there’ve been two such programs—other years there’s been one, always sold out. Dance fans have an opportunity to see companies like M.A.D.D. Rhythms, Culture Shock Chicago, RFSF (“Raw Funky Street Flav,” which—full disclosure—is the creation of my hip-hop teacher, Viola Elkins) and literally dozens more Friday and Saturday at Stage 773.</p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="" src="http://www.wbez.org/sites/default/files/blog/insert-image/2011-November/2011-11-17/Merce%20Cunningham%20Dan%2348D57C.jpg" style="width: 600px; height: 399px;" title=""></p><p style="text-align: left;">And for those in a genuflecting mood: this weekend the <a href="http://www.merce.org/">Merce Cunningham Dance Company makes its final appearance</a> in Chicago—one of its last anywhere. Merce died in 2009, and when the company’s<strong> </strong>“<strong>Legacy Tour</strong>” concludes on NYE 2011 in NYC, the troupe will be disbanded. Those who’ve never seen his work and are curious, take note: Merce didn’t act like an icon. His sense of humor courses through the dances being performed here, three on Friday and one (<em>Roaratorio</em>—I love it) on Saturday <a href="http://www.colum.edu/dance_center/performances/mercecunninghamdancecompany/index.php">at the Harris</a>.</p><p>My other fabulous dance teacher, Idy Ciss of Muntu Dance Theatre, is also performing this weekend, Friday night at the OTSFM with Erika Ochoa of Baladina Dance. <strong><em><a href="http://www.oldtownschool.org/concerts/2011/11/18_kayfetch.php">Kay Fetch</a>&nbsp;</em></strong>(no, I don’t know what it means) reportedly takes viewers on a music-and-dance trip to West and North Africa.</p><p><u><strong>Jonathan Abarbanel</strong></u></p><p><img alt="" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-November/2011-11-17/thecaretaker.jpg" style="margin-right: 10px; margin-top: 10px; margin-bottom: 10px; float: left; width: 180px; height: 266px;" title="">Distinguished actor William J. Norris at last is ancient and decrepit enough to play the roles he’s been playing for the last 30 years, among them Davies, the bullied title character of <a href="http://www.writerstheatre.org/boxoffice/production?id=0082"><strong><em>The Caretaker</em></strong></a>, an early masterpiece by Harold Pinter now at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe. Norris may be a doddering old bag of bones who can barely walk or talk, but audiences love him, so whatcha’ gonna’ do?&nbsp; Director Ron OJ Parson has been smart enough to surround Norris with two excellent stout lads who can hold him up through Pinter’s famous Comedy of Menace, Anish Jethmalani and Kareem Bandealy. <em>The Caretaker</em> continues at the Writers’ Theatre Books-on-Vernon location through next March 25, by which time Norris—known for his indelible performances as Scrooge at the Goodman Theatre—will be about 200 years old.</p><p>Only 14 months and $16 million from groundbreaking ceremonies—which is fast and relatively cheap by Chicago construction standards—the <strong>Black Ensemble Cultural Center</strong> is open for business at 4450 N. Clark Street in Uptown. Consisting of one brand-new building and one retrofit building, the Center includes two theaters, classrooms, offices and gallery space. It’s the fulfillment of a dream for Black Ensemble executive director Jackie Taylor, who founded the company 35 years ago. To open the Center, Taylor has mounted a new production (with a new, dynamic star) of a decade-old Black Ensemble hit, <a href="http://www.blackensembletheater.org/event/2"><strong><em>My Heart is Crying: The Jackie Wilson Story</em></strong></a>, a musical biography, which runs through Jan. 8.</p></p> Thu, 17 Nov 2011 17:07:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-11-17/dont-miss-list-merce-cunninghams-last-hurrah-94102