Theater Review: Nothing But the Blues at Black Ensemble Theater

August 11, 2010

By Edith McCauley
Theater Critic

The hot days of August have arrived, and an equally hot blues show is playing at Black Ensemble Theater. Jackie Taylor’s theater, a landmark in the Lakeview neighborhood, continues to entertain and delight audiences. Her tributes to black musicians and singers began several years ago, including Otis Redding Story, Jackie Wilson Story, Elvis Was a Black Man, Doo Wop Shoo Bop, The Nat King Cole Story, and a host of others. This formula has proved extremely successful and assures a full house for every performance.

The current production, Nothing But the Blues, written by Joe Plummer, is based on another true-life character. Theresa McLaurin Needham opened a basement bar and blues club on South Indiana in 1949. Her customers, many of whom had migrated from the South to find work in Chicago, brought with them the love of the blues, and Theresa provided their entertainment. Junior Wells and Buddy Guy were in the house band, and Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, Otis Rush and Howlin’ Wolf, among others, performed there on a regular basis.

Plummer integrates the reality of the times and the music that became an essential part of Chicago culture with the lives of Theresa’s customers.

Rhonda Preston is Theresa, dominating the bar and keeping everyone in order. Lyle Miller plays Lewis, an amiable drunk who finds his true love, Flo (Robin Beaman). Trinity Murdock is Will, the doorman, and the amazing Rick Stone is Old Man Washburn, the blues singer personified. The kid, Lawrence Williams, realizes his lifelong dream to actually perform with the band at Theresa’s. Kelvin Roston Jr. (Mailman Tate) has his hands full balancing his relationship with his wife (Noreen Starks) and the sex goddess, Rolanda, played by Candace C. Edwards. Every member of the cast is a top-notch blues singer, and their ensemble and solo numbers bring down the house.

Roston is making his debut at Black Ensemble. We have seen him most recently in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Court Theatre. Preston is a member of BET since 1998, when she debuted in Taylor’s The Other Cinderella. In the upcoming production of that show, she reprises her role as the stepmother.

The Other Cinderella, based on the classic fairy tale and Jackie Taylor’s personal experiences growing up in Cabrini Green, has become an integral part of the BET’s production schedule. The next production will mark the 16th return of the popular show.

The “Nothing But the Blues Band” carries the show. Musical Director and Drummer Robert Reddick has assembled the perfect blues band: Mark Moultrup, piano; Herb Walker, guitar; Osee Anderson, lead guitar; and a talented replacement for Tracey Anita Baker, bass.

The big news at BET is the construction of their new theater complex, The Black Ensemble Theater Culture Center is at 4450 N. Clark. A lifelong dream of Jackie Taylor, it has become a reality. The groundbreaking occurs Sept. 10 of this year. Their amazing fund-raising efforts have resulted in an $11 million building fund—an unbelievable accomplishment.

Nothing But the Blues runs until Aug. 19, and for ticket information, call (773) 769-4451 or go online at blackensemble.org. This is absolutely a delightful show—do see it.

From the Aug. 11-17, 2010 issue

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