By Eric Karas
Style and Grace: In Tribute to Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson is the Black Ensemble Theater’s tribute to two great African American women who sang songs of emotional power with the style and grace of the title but also a great deal of self respect.
The script lets us know right away that these women do not have the same background, Their upbringings, family life, marriages and even the time periods are not exactly the same. What is the same is their demographics and ability to sing a song that feels autobiographical and powerful , even if other singers had sung it before.
Since this show has to tell some basic biography, a host (played with charm by Vincent Jordan) fills the audience in on the action., while s co-host Kelvin Davis also shares information and and steps into several roles convincingly.
This show isn’t about them, of course, it’s about these legendary ladies. Aeriel Williams plays the young Lena Horne. She shows a vulnerability as the young Lena who is growing into the legend we all know. She shows the difference between a young, inexperienced woman off stage who finds her ‘voice’ literally and figuratively in performing. She does echo Horn is some phrasing and her look and just enough not to be an impression.
Jayla Williams Craig plays the young Nancy Wilson. Nancy is an entirely different person from Lena. She actually is confident of her talent and wants to perform, while supported by her family. She does a great job of showing a confident young woman who knows how to sell the story of a song. “Guess who I saw today” is a real standout.
Chantee Joy as the mature Horne sure knows how to belt out a tune. She has the stature and self confidence of the legend she is encompassing. She gets a chance to explore her dramatic muscle singing Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” about her controversial interracial marriage. She belts so much she doesn’t really need the microphone.
Rhonda Preston as the mature Wilson commands the stage. She really knows how to sing a song and bring the audience with her on the emotions within it. The entire audience seems to lean forward when the mature ladies are on the stage.
The show is full of standards like “Stormy Weather,” “I Got Rhythm,” “One For My Baby” (and one more for the road) and “I Wish You Love,” along with an original song, “Style and Grace,” for the cast to sum up the show. The supporting cast does a fine job in multiple roles and the BET band keeps the tunes flowing.
Kylah Frye’s script gives a little bio but really is just an excuse to get these ladies out singing, which is what people are coming for. An in depth exploration of the troubles and activism of these women would be a different show. The theme of this show is that these ladies never let anyone denigrate them or treat them with disrespect. Overall the audience gets what they want which is to reconnect with these songs and performers (and some fabulous dresses too).
Black Ensemble Theater presents “Style and Grace: In Tribute to Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson” through June 30th at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center 4450 N Clark Street. More information and tickets are available here.