By Patrick O’Brien
I Am Who I Am (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass) is what it is: the story of Teddy Pendergrass, R&B legend and inspiration for the physically disabled.
I Am Who I Am (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass) is what it is, in the sense that it bears much in common with previous Black Ensemble productions: same solid acting, same superb musicianship (thank you Robert Reddrick), same bouts of less-than-scintillating storytelling.
But this time around? The production pulls off some sleight-of-hand and shuts those problems behind Pendergrass’s much-vaunted door, and creates something singularly electrifying.
The problems are still there, no question: trivia-bombing; clashing modes of presentation; dramatic oversights and shortcuts. (“Wanna know what really happened? Read my book,” which barely counts as a shortcut.)
But here, the focus is tight on one songbook, all Pendergrass, be it the stuff written for him as well as his own. Both still hold up. Forget foot-tapping, and forget head-bobbing. It’s a frenzy in there, if there ever was one.
There’s a neat little dollop of wry humor (“Shit, life is funny”) to keep things charged. Hell, there’s some pretty bleak laughs in this one; without revealing too much, one of Teddy’s monologues has him ponder his physical incapacitation to commit suicide.
And the fragmented nature of Jackie Taylor’s script—flitting between young Teddy (Deverin Deonte) breaking into the biz and hitting the heights of a solo career, and older Teddy (Rashawn Thompson) reaching new emotional heights following his accident—is very much suited for the presentational revue that Black Ensemble excels at, and which director Daryl D. Brooks delivers with élan.
It’s also a model fit for a performer as up close and personal as Pendergrass was, and a handsome fit, it is. As evidenced on press night, a line about how his shows should have had paramedics on standby was not a passing fancy. It still isn’t. Deonte and Thompson have the audience eating out the palm of their hands every time the band fires up the next tune.
Just as impressive are the women in Teddy’s life; it wouldn’t be a biographical revue without their presence. Ensemble members Rhonda Preston and Melanie McCollough deliver solid turns as mother Ida and no-nonsense manager Karen Stills, respectively. The former, immovable in her confidence in her son, the latter unstoppable in penetrating Teddy’s stage persona to keep things in shape.
Kora Kishé Green also puts in an appearance as Patti LaBelle, and she doesn’t so much kick up her heels as she kicks them off. To a mid-show standing ovation, at that.
Even if you come looking for Teddy Pendergrass, the man, you will at least leave with Teddy Pendergrass, the music and the legacy, which is still alive and pulsating, a life, a song still worth singing.
“I Am Who I Am (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass)” runs through October 30th at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N Clark St. More information and tickets ($55 on Thursday and Sunday matinees; $65 on Fridays, Saturday evenings, and Sunday matinees) are available online here.