Black Ensemble presents a battle cry


Legends the Musical at Black Ensemble Theater
Legends the Musical at Black Ensemble Theater

‘Legends the Musical: A Civil Rights Movement Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’

3 stars

Jackie Taylor, the amiable creative heart and soul of Chicago’s beloved Black Ensemble Theater, has declared 2020 as the company’s Season of Change. She opens with this original, ambitious, musical battle cry, a movement against the injustice and bigotry that’s overtaking our country today thanks to an administration that has set our country back 200 years.

And this is just the beginning of Taylor’s aggressive theatrical approach to helping combat the racism that’s reared its ugly head in America.

Ten talented performers led by BET musical superstars, Dwight Neal and Dawn Bless, welcome theatergoers to the Healing Circle. The entire company examines the horror of trying to survive in racist America today.

Next, they take us on a journey back through time, illuminating dozens of forgotten black scientists, inventors and historical figures. The cast leads this retrospective of heroes into the present and, with some imagination, a more hopeful future.

Sometimes shocking, often uncomfortable to witness, the company relates the inhumane brutality that African-Americans have experienced throughout time.

The cast doesn’t sugarcoat the horrific way that African-Americans have been treated since being brought to this country as prisoners and sold as slaves. They point out that Caucasians have treated People of Color with repugnance since Columbus set foot on these shores.

The production, which at times feels overstuffed and, especially in the first act, often repetitive, sadly reminds us of the hundreds of Black lives that have been needlessly and tragically taken for no reason, except for the color of their skin.

Legends the Musical at Black Ensemble Theater
Legends the Musical at Black Ensemble Theater

The statistics are staggering. Names are recited, dates are provided and photos are projected to drive home the tragic fact that today guns and knives have replaced lynching.

But, in addition to being a wakeup call, the production balances the negativity with hope, positive anticipation and a promise for a better future.

The audience is asked to join hands and swear to help bring love and healing back to our country beginning with our own lives and then by making informed decisions at the polls next November.

For this show, Taylor has composed several inspirational songs including the opening number, “Welcome to the Healing,” the sad “Face of Hate” and the lead-in to a presentation of the names of Black lives we’ve lost, titled “We Must Remember.”

BET newcomer, the exquisitely gifted vocalist, Hannah Mary Simpson, thrills with Taylor’s anthem,  “They Are Our Heroes.”

Taylor’s also included some much-loved music by other respected writers. Vincent Jordan leads the ensemble with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and then opens Act II with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.”

One of BET’s favorite performers, the dynamic Colleen Perry, brings down the house with her performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Blake Hawthorne, Vincent Jordan, Dwight Neal and Hannah Mary Simpson in Legends the Musical at Black Ensemble Theater
Blake Hawthorne, Vincent Jordan, Dwight Neal and Hannah Mary Simpson in Legends the Musical at Black Ensemble Theater

The powerful Dwight Neal delights with an audience singalong of Bob Marley’s reggae hit, “One Love.” Stewart Romeo caresses the lyrics of Stevie Wonder’s, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” and Dawn Bless enchants with the 1985 R&B hit, “Caravan of Love.”

Blake Hawthorne inspires theatergoers with Sam Cooke’s, “A Change is Gonna Come” and lovely Jasmine Bomer closes the first act with Andra Day’s rousing, “Rise Up!”

Perhaps one of the most poignantly moving moments of this production is performer MJ Rawls’ personal passage toward becoming who she truly is today

Affectingly told with heartbreaking honesty, Rawls relates her journey toward accepting that she’s a black woman trapped inside a man’s body. She’s embraced, both by the cast as well as every audience member, as she shares her sad past buoyed with the hope for a happy future.

Rawls is now transitioning into the person she acknowledges that she was meant to be. She caps her stirring soliloquy with an inspiring rendition of the tear-jerking classic, “Stand By Me.”

This new musical revue by Jackie Taylor is uniquely different from the usual Black Ensemble Theater fare. It’s entertaining while being educational, motivational and, sometimes, a little uncomfortable to experience.

Our Guides for the evening, the incomparable Dwight Neal and Dawn Bless, tell us upfront that there may be some pain, but that it’s necessary for the healing to take place.

In Taylor’s superb company of actor/singers each has his individual moment to shine; but then they take a step back into the ensemble and offer their support to the next performer.

The confrontational moments of truth may, indeed, shatter our comfort zone, but they’re balanced by some glorious music and proclamations of shining hope.

DETAILS:  “Legends the Musical” is at Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago, through April 12, 2020. For tickets and more information call (773) 769-4451 or visit BlackEnsemble.

Colin Douglas

Additional information about this and other area productions can be found  at Theatre in Chicago

(Photos by Alan Davis and David Walker)