By Bryson David Hoff
Reality television is typically thought of as entertainment for the lowest common denominator.
Reality shows are cheap to produce and easy to market, the exact opposite of a theatre piece in many respects. On the surface, it would seem counterintuitive to try blending these two forms of entertainment. However, that is exactly what Writer/Director Reuben D. Echoles has done and, in the process, has crafted a piece in Black Ensemble Theatre’s Last Dancer Standing that is both accessible and quietly clever in its staging.
The piece covers the behind-the-scenes tensions during the final few episodes of a So You Think You Can Dance-esque show produced by a Black-owned studio fighting tooth and nail for continued patronage from the network that carries the program. The soundstage is fraught not only with interpersonal conflict between the contestants, but also power struggles between the judges and hosts. These arguments touch on a wide array of issues from racial politics and homophobia to parent-child jealousies and the corporatization of art. That each of these issues arise from the character conflict in as organic a fashion as they do is a testament to Echoles as a writer.
The atmosphere is also greatly helped by the contributions of Co-Scenic Designers Denise Karczewski and Bekki Lambrecht whose unit set evokes the same brushed-steel grandiosity of the American Idol stages. As well, Projection Designer Aaron Quick‘s clever recreations of reality show talking heads act as the bridge between the televised performances and the reality behind the scenes.
As is to be expected from the show’s premise, the ensemble of contestants is embodied by an impressively athletic array of young performers. Standouts from the pack are Lemond A. Hayes’s out-and-proud Nikita, whose sharp, well-delivered barbs are a source of more than a few laughs, and Charlotte Drover’s Erica, who is the very model of the “not here to make friends” reality show villain archetype. It is unfortunate that, with an ensemble of this size (the show begins with the final 12 dancers in the competition), not all members are given an equal showcase opportunity. However that is unavoidable and all work well with what they are given.
The most dominating performances, however, belong to Deverin Deonté and Alexis J. Roston. Deonté in the role of R&B superstar-cum-Last Dancer Standing judge Justin Paul is made of equal parts charm and swagger with a dollop of earnestness on top that makes his character one of the most layered in the piece. Roston, meanwhile, most effectively conveys the onscreen/offscreen dichotomy of show business as Radiant Michaels, a soul singer and the show’s host forever living in the shadow of her superstar mother. Not only does she get ample chance to show off her seriously impressive vocal pipes, she also manages to craft a nuanced portrayal of jealousy and wounded ego in scenes where a lesser performer could easily fall into caricature and broad comedy.
Ironically, the least engaging element of the play itself may be the titular competition element. The ensemble of dancers is so evenly matched that any of the top 12 seem like plausible winners. This is in many ways true to the nature of many competition reality shows, however in a theatrical format the audience doesn’t get the benefit of multiple hours of preliminary rounds to form attachments to their competitors, which can leech some of the drama out of the elimination ceremony scenes. This may be by design however, as, without spoiling anything, by the finale, it’s clear the winner of the competition is not as important as what the competition itself represents.
So how successful is Black Ensemble Theater’s experiment with blending theatre and reality television? Well, an audience member with an immense distaste for reality television might not be moved by the central conceit of the competition. However, the rest of the plot and thematics might be enough to overcome that. From the other side, what Black Ensemble Theater has created might well be a perfect introductory point for audiences already predisposed toward reality television but away from a more traditional evening at the theatre. That in and of itself seems like a pretty successful experiment.
Black Ensemble Theater presents “Last Dancer Standing” through September 3 at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.