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Theater Review:

"DYNAMITE DIVAS" at Black Ensemble Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

Jackie Taylor, artistic director of Black Ensemble Theater, has created a beloved niche in Chicago’s theater community. She and musical director Jimmy Tilman have collaborated on well-crafted salutes to influential African-American singers, songwriters and musicians. These combined musical revues and biographical sketches tend to focus on one artist, like "The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart Is Crying, Crying") -- now in an open run.

But in Taylor’s latest world premiere, "Dynamite Divas," she includes five legendary female vocalists whose inspiring stories would be much more effective if presented as individual showcases.

As it stands, "Dynamite Divas" – centered on Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Nancy Wilson, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin – shortchanges these women for the sake of an awkwardly retrofitted story about their reunion for a futuristic "Diva" TV telecast.

Pushed ahead to the year 2008, the musical gets set into motion when an effete millionaire named Mr. Maurice (roof-raising vocalist Tony Duwon in an overly swishy portrayal) gathers the divas together for a major TV concert. He is joined by two sidekicks, Youngblood (talented dancer-comedian Rueben D. Echoles) and Hubert (a tentative Herbert Nelson), who run a simulator that takes the women back to the heights of their careers. Mr. Maurice also places the five temperamental artists in a dressing room called the "Divine Diva Development Chamber."

This structure, while allowing for some sassy repartee among these mega-stars (an irate Aretha tells Gladys to "take that midnight train to Georgia"), also hampers the pace and believability of the production. All five singers remain on stage for most of this 150-minute show, posing a time-consuming challenge for them to change into their elaborate costumes. Audiences become very aware that Mr. Maurice’s reprimanding of his bungling assistants is quite an unoriginal way to stall for costume changes.

On the other hand, the vocalists deliver some astonishing performances – with Cherisse A. Scott’s very centered and committed Roberta Flack and Lavondra Hinton’s tough-edged but sweet Aretha Franklin taking the prize for the most accurate and stimulating transformations.

Eva D. is appropriately militant as the politics-conscious Nina Simone. Yet because she is such a pivotal African-American artist with such a crucial history, she really needs her own show. (Incidentally, the real Simone is performing July 19 at the Chicago Theatre). But Rhonda Preston’s Nancy Wilson is too stiff and mellow; while Katrina Tate’s Gladys Knight is surprisingly agitated and self-righteous.

Nevertheless, their vocal talents provide this production with its most memorable moments. They include: Simone’s "Mississippi Goddamn"; Knight’s "A Letter Full of Tears"; Wilson’s "How Glad I Am;" and all of Flack’s and Franklin’s star turns. Flack’s duets with her late songwriting partner Donny Hathaway (a multifaceted Vince Harris) are particularly moving and joyous. Another standout is Echoles and Eva D.’s explosive pas de deux (choreographed by Echoles) to Flack’s "Reverend Lee."

Overall, the production demonstrates the vast stylistic ranges of these female artists who rose to fame against all odds.

But Taylor should scrap the Space Age framework. These stars require any extraneous plot lines to get out of the way in order to make divine music.•

"Dynamite Divas" runs through Aug. 19 at Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon. Tickets: $30. Call 773-769-4451 or 773-769-5516.

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