By Jane Recker
It’s hard to find something fresh when it comes to shows honoring past artists. Either they become jukebox bio-musicals, taking artistic license with artists’ lives and relying on canned foreshadowing jokes, or they exist simply as musical revues, honoring the music but not the work it took to create it.
Black Ensemble Theater’s Women of Soul gracefully navigates somewhere between those two extremes. Through a series of vignettes and dynamite musical performances, the show is able to teach the audience about female artists’ contributions to the evolution of soul without feeling like a didactic history lesson.
Written and directed by Daryl Brooks, who previously wrote Men of Soul, Women of Soul takes the audience through the evolving history of soul, starting with the unapologetically spiritual Mahalia Jackson and making its way to modern artists like Adele and Rihanna.
Of course, living up to the legacies of these iconic women while singing their songs is no small feat, but this cast is up to the task. Cynthia Carter shows off her range, both vocal and comedic, by nailing both Big Mama Thorton’s gritty bawdiness and rocking “I Will Survive” even better than Gloria Gaynor herself. Robin DaSilva lends a wide, mournful contralto to her depiction of Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World.” And though no artist could ever replicate the sheer power and clarity of Whitney Houston in “I Have Nothing,” Jerica Exum comes pretty damn close.
Though the aforementioned are some of the standout stars of the show, the company is devoid of any weak link. The entire ensemble has an exciting and energetic chemistry that keeps the audience engaged with each new song. Supported by a band able to deftly fine-tune itself to the style of each song, these women of soul knock every song out of the park.
It doesn’t hurt that the costumes are drop-dead gorgeous as well. Either BET has a costume budget rivaling that of Broadway playhouses or costume designer Reuben Echoles is unimaginably economical; every scene brought a new dazzling period classic to add some eye-candy to the musical entertainment. A personal favorite: While Ariel Williams as Diana Ross rocks the silver sequins in her reflective 70’s dress, it’s the billowing, petal-like, orchid tulle cape covering it that’s a real delight to watch.
No show calling itself “Women of Soul” would be complete without a nod to Aretha Franklin, and this show gives “The Queen of Soul” a full tribute in the finale. In arguably the most moving number of the show, the entire cast is onstage bedecked in glittering numbers of peach and gold, each taking their turn to celebrate the work of a woman who paved the way for so many other female artist.
While of course Black Ensemble Theater is committed to diverse casting in regard to race, this ensemble is just as diverse in regard to age and body type. Seeing all the different women of the ensemble all celebrating their individuality onstage through the common bond of soul music is more moving than you might expect.
In a year that has been particularly tough for women all across America, it sometimes feels like women’s only way to express the female experience is by fighting for their very rights. While that important fight continues, Women of Soul offers a much-needed breath of fresh air by presenting a pure celebration of womanhood through great music. It’s a reminder of all women have done to shape our present, and how they will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the future.
Black Ensemble Theater’s “Women of Soul” runs through January 13 at 4450 N. Clark St, Chicago. More information and tickets may be found here.