By Colin Douglas
Black Ensemble Theater Founder and CEO Jackie Taylor is known for her exciting musical revues and plays, enlightening audiences about a famous recording group or individual artist, a significant era in the recording history of rhythm & blues music or a specific event taken from African American culture and history.
However, what began as a comprehensive and tuneful overview of living in Black Harlem, covering all the social and political influences of that time and place, soon gave way to something more immediate and important.
Taylor, like many other concerned and conscientious Americans, was shocked and troubled by the hateful and backward direction our society seems to be headed. This negative, tragic and deadly attitude, while never all right, has snowballed even more since the 2016 election. She decided to table the writing of her more lighthearted Fall musical revue in favor of addressing a national disaster of renewed racism in a far different production.
Assembling a baker’s dozen of talented actor/singer/dancers, Taylor’s The Black Renaissance presents a panoramic view of the continual fight for freedom that’s always been part of Black History. Focusing on the continual need for rebirth, the very definition of the word Renaissance, she depicts, through song, dance, dialogue and projected illustrations the background of the African American experience. From the early days of slavery to today’s unsettling societal issues. Ms. Taylor doesn’t simply focus on Black heroes but also gives credit to the movers and shakers of other ethnic origins.
Taylor has developed an original script that, although sometimes a little repetitive, is filled with an earnest message for today. It begs us to remember that racism must be resisted, especially as it seems to escalate under the current administration. She doesn’t simply place the blame on a single race, but lays the liability with everyone. The goal throughout this tuneful and emotionally charged history lesson is to motivate theatergoers to go out and help create a better world where racism no longer exists.
The production features 10 original and moving songs by Ms. Taylor, including “The Color of Your Mind,” “Break It Down,” “The Slave Syndrome Blues,” “465 Years” and “Let’s Go Down to the River.” Familiar spirituals, like “Oh, Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome/The Earth Will Be Done” come with renewed meaning as they make their way into this enthusiastic and well-sung production. Performers who stand out vocally include respected performer, gentleman and octogenarian Wendell Jackson, the always glorious Rhonda Preston, and the talented Dwight Neal, Lekeya Shearrill, Levi Stewart, Jr., Janaah Coates and Rueben D. Echoles (who also choreographs this production with remarkably inventive dance moves).
The set is simply a series of stepped platforms, bookended by a collection of unadorned flats, upon which Aaron Quick’s historical illustrations can be easily projected. As with every BET production, four talented, live musicians, this time housed above the audience, and under the guidance of percussionist Robert Reddrick, include Adam Sherrod on piano, Mark Miller on bass and Gary Baker on guitar. Ruthanne Swanson’s costumes are equally basic, but effective. She clothes her cast in black and gray for the first act and in a variety of colored shirts, ties, vests and blouses for the second half of the show. The effect is a spartan look that helps focus on the words, movements and music of Taylor’s work.
And this production is, indeed, a worthwhile experience. While more educational and inspiring than simply entertaining, Taylor’s The Black Renaissance is a thoughtful, stimulating reminder of how far this country’s come through centuries of racial relations, but of how far backwards we seem to be currently headed. It’s never too late to rectify this dreadful situation and this heartfelt musical revue is just what we need today.
Black Ensemble Theatre presents “The Black Renaissance” through November 19 at 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.