More than a moment of history in Black Ensemble's potent 'Renaissance'

Tuesday, 24 October 2017, 10:06:05 PM. 'The Black Renaissance' is a full throttle exploration of the history of race in the United States.

The initial plan was to create a show about the Harlem Renaissance, that great flowering of African-American culture during the 1920s. But as Jackie Taylor, the force behind Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater (BET) explained to the audience after taking bows Sunday for her latest work, she sensed that the state of the nation at this moment demanded something else. So she set her mind on writing, directing and composing a more wide-ranging history: “The Black Renaissance — A Musical Resistance Against Racism.”

‘The Black Renaissance — A Musical Resistance Against Racism’
Highly recommended
When: Through Nov. 26
Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark
Tickets: $55 – $65
Info: www.blackensemble.org
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

In some ways this show is quite a departure from the work Taylor and her colleagues have made their specialty for decades — portraits of African-American celebrities and the wide range of musical styles in which racism is just part of the story. Instead, “The Black Renaissance” is a full-throttle exploration of the history of race in the United States, from the very beginning of slavery in the early colonial era, through the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, the Civil Rights Movement and then on to today, with the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and more. Along the way there is the long pattern of change, and the frequent reaction to change, which is clearly set out in the show’s opening moments with video from a speech by President Obama and a photo of President Trump in a red cap emblazoned with “Make America Great Again.”

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Wendell Jackson (left) and Dwight Neal in Jackie Taylor’s “The Black Renaissance” at the Black Ensemble Theater. | Michael Courier

At the same time, in crucial ways the show also retains the essential style and spirit of BET, with a superb cast of 13 clari0n-voiced singer/dancers/actors (notably blending three generations); a dynamite four-piece band led by music director Robert Reddrick; a “reach out and touch someone” sense of audience connection, and a feeling that a higher power is hovering, enabling you, as Taylor’s final song puts it, to “Go Get Your Blessings.” The score, not incidentally, features nearly a dozen songs penned by Taylor, many of them among her finest work to date, along with two classics, “Oh Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome.”

The show’s first act focuses on history and hones in on all the horrors of slavery, including laws that prevented slaves from learning to read or write. There’s also a heartrending evocation of plantation life, in which slaves are forbidden to marry, yet manage to do so anyway, taking many painful, family-destroying vows in the process.

Taylor makes note of the many notable slave rebellions. And she considers the plight of the four million slaves “freed” at the end of the Civil War, many of whom stayed on plantations because they had no idea of how to survive beyond them. She also cites many achievements, including the establishment of African-American universities and a slew of African-American newspapers that thrived, if only briefly. Countering all this, of course, is the horrific practice of lynching and the growth of the Klan.

But as Taylor also points out, in addition to black activists, each era had brave white supporters of equal rights, and she pays homage to them.

The show’s second act takes on a more political quality, drawing on all the familiar tropes, e.g. “some of my best friends are black people,” and challenging the audience to just speak the word “racism” aloud. As Taylor tells us, “We are inside of a cycle, and that cycle must be broken.” She goes on to discuss the destruction of young lives “in our own neighborhoods,” leading up to a powerful song, “The Slave Syndrome Blues,” followed by “Pull It Out By the Root,” a rousing reggae number calling for change.

Throughout, adding wit, wisdom and some sensationally subtle and mischievous moves, is the show’s charismatic “elder statesman,” Wendell Jackson, a true theatrical light bulb. And then there is Rhonda Preston, whose power voice can serve as an instrument of uplift, protest and sheer beauty; the fervent Dwight Neal; the ever-animated Rueben D. Echoles (in superb voice), and, in a show that is a serious ensemble effort, the youthful talents of dancers Linnea Norwood and Michael Adkins, plus Brian Boller, Jana’ah Coates, Lemond A. Hayes,  Lekeya Shearrill, Gregory “Henri” Slater, Lynn Soler and Levi Stewart Jr., all enhanced by Ruthanne Swanson’s costumes and Aaron Quick’s projections and sound design.

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Michael Adkins and Linnea Norwood in Jackie Taylor’s “The Black Renaissance” at the Black Ensemble Theater. | Michael Courier

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