Chicago Theatre Review
Let’s Breathe, Shall We?
At Last: A Tribute to Etta James – Black Ensemble Theatre
Jackie Taylor, the founder, CEO and all-around creative genius behind all things Black Ensemble Theatre, proclaims that Etta James, one of the most famously talented and celebrated singers of the 20th century, was such a complex figure that “as a playwright, (she) found it impossible to tell this story using only one person.” This resulted in Ms. Taylor casting five actress/singers to portray the incomparable songstress, whose singing style spanned just as many genres of music. Etta James is said to have been one of the first singers to bridge the gap between R&B and rock ‘n roll. During five decades in music, the recording artist earned six Grammy Awards, 17 Blues Music Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll, Blues and Grammy Halls of Fame. Jackie Taylor knew what she was doing.
Playing Etta James at various stages in her life are the wonderful Arzula Maxine Gardner, portraying the songstress as we last remember her; the terrific Yahdina U-Deen is Etta during her middle-age years; Candace C. Edwards and Melanie McCullough shine as the diva at the height of her success; and the always brilliant Alanna Taylor brings to life the feisty Ms. James at the beginning of career. All five ladies do this music legend proud and it’s impossible not to praise them equally. Each singer contributes her own distinctive talents to the singer’s overall tribute. Ms. Gardner is self-assured and brings a composed maturity to her work. Caressing her music with deep, rich sound and super sonic power, Ms. U-Deen deserves her own cabaret show. Ms. Edwards brings a sweetness and light touch to Etta during the middle of her career. Ms. McCullough belts the soul out of numbers like “I’d Rather Go Blind” and, as a dancer, moves every inch of what her mama gave her. Ms. Alanna Taylor, a consistent favorite at BET, captures all the anger, hurt and frustration of the young Etta James and spits it out in dialogue, song and dance. Individually these ladies are unique and talented; as an ensemble they become a force with whom to be reckoned.
Hosting the production as the emcee is actor and playwright, Rueben D. Echoles. What makes his performance particularly exciting and unique is that Mr. Echoles performs in full drag as Ms. Real. As Etta’s professed best friend, she introduces the celebrated songstress and provides much of Etta James’ interesting backstory. The narrative continues with each of the five ladies chiming in, their lines often in verse. Mr. Echoles sometimes joins in the group numbers and demonstrates he can sell those Motown moves with the best of them. The actor really stands out in a number written by Jackie Taylor for the piece, entitled “Don’t Blame Me.”
And that’s where the strength of this show really lies: in its many musical numbers. The audience is certainly curious about Etta James’s personal life, but at Ms. Real continues to remind the actresses who dwell on the singer’s personal problems and addictions, this is, after all, a tribute. Born Jamesetta Hawkins to her unwed, 14-year-old mother, Etta was raised by her beloved foster mother, Mama Lu. The audience learns how, like many popular singers of that time, Etta began singing in a church choir; how she was discovered by Johnny Otis and how her first hit record became “Dance With Me, Henry” (which, for censorship reasons, was changed from the original, “Roll With Me, Henry”).
We catch glimpses from the singer’s love life (portrayed by Mark J.P. Hood, Daniel Phillips and especially the distinguished Adrian Byrd as the husband who served prison time to save his wife’s reputation). However, we hear repeatedly about Etta’s legal problems, drug addiction and rehabilitation and, while the audience certainly empathizes and understands how these events shaped Ms. James’ music, the show’s narrative starts to sound like a broken record. At two and a half hours, the production could use some artistic editing. Audiences have come to celebrate the singer and enjoy the fruits of her talent.
Jackie Taylor’s rousing tribute to one of music’s most popular, unquestionably talented performers has been updated since first produced back in 2005. Backed by Robert Reddrick’s talented, hard-working seven-member musical combo, five very talented ladies provide a somewhat long, entertaining evening of song and dance. This buffet of rock and roll, blues, jazz and gospel, with a heavy helping of soul, makes for a fine celebration of the unequalled Etta James, who has returned to Chicago, “At Last.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 27-December 28 by Black Ensemble Theater at their Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-769-4451 or by going to www.blackensemble.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.