In “Grandma’s Jukebox,” director/playwright Michelle Renee Bester creates a dual celebration. On the one hand, the Black Ensemble Theater production running through June 26 packs some 15 songs from a wealth of genres into the 90-minute staging. From gospel to Motown to disco to “Thriller”-era Michael Jackson and beyond, Bester delivers a grand tribute to the almighty powers of timeless, groundbreaking tunes that have endured across generations.
On the other hand, Bester didn’t title her piece simply “Jukebox.” While the titular grandmother is only seen as a framed photo, she’s also celebrated throughout, the music coming in the context of four cousins reminiscing, grieving and paying homage to their beloved matriarch.
Things start slowly, as actress Jessica Brooke Seals (the actors perform under their real names, not those of characters)) sweeps up red Solo cups and paper plates, initially in silence, eventually sending the rich, a cappella refrain of the hymn “It is Well” across the stage and up to the heavens. As Seals progresses through the number, the mood is somber, reverent and feels like it’s on the verge of some kind of revelation.
We learn we’re at a post-funeral gathering where grandma’s four grandchildren and the family attorney haveconvened to read the will. Having cleaned up after the repast held in honor of their grandmother, the cousins, (Seals, Blake Reasoner, Vincent Jordan and Aeriel Williams) wait to hear the lawyer (J. Michael Wright) read the will.
When Bester’s script is overtaken by the music, it’s at its strongest. Otherwise, the dialogue reduces the cousins to a few defining crises: Jordan plays an ambitious, bright young man who desperately wants to honor his grandma by forging a career that forever leaves behind the mistakes of his youth. Reasoner plays an aspiring musician struggling with the terrifying abuse heaped on him as a child. Seals takes the part of a woman in an abusive marriage, paralyzed to inaction by the dire financial straits she’d be in were she to leave. Williams, meanwhile, is the soft-spoken, sometimes child-like cousin who discovers what magic in that deceptively nondescript jukebox shining against the living room wall (nice retro-furnishings from set designer Bek Lambrecht).
As the lawyer explains to the group, grandma’s will stipulates that the cousins must commit to family therapy before they can get their inheritances. It is quickly, preposterously decided that the family lawyer will also serve as the family therapist/mediator. That bit of deeply dubious professionalism aside (Mediation and therapy are not synonymous; If your attorney insists he can be the family therapist as well as its lawyer, you need a new attorney), the frame-work allows the audience to quickly learn the broad strokes of each cousin’s struggles.
When it comes to vocals, Bester’s ensemble has the belt, the passion and the harmonic precision of a choir of rock-and-soul-inspired seraphim — and that more than outweighs the production’s flaws.
Seals sets the bar with that glorious opening, reaffirming her vocal prowess much later in a scorching take on the Mary J. Blige hit “No More Drama.” When Reasoner slides into Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” the energy and the spark are enough to catapult the audience straight back to the early 1980s (at so it will for those fortunate enough to remember that era when “Thriller” dropped.) On Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” Jordan does the originator proud, filling the song with joy even as the lyrics speak to a time long since gone.
Williams knocks it out of the park with an emotive, soaring rendition “I’ll Be There,” (penned by Barry Gordy, Bob West, Hal Davis and Willie Hutch). And when the entire group joins forces for “Before I Let Go” (written by Frankie Beverly) the sound is part arena-rock singalong and part cathedral choir.
Per usual in BET’s spacious Ravenswood theater, the live, on-stage band is a group that knows its business. For “Grandma’s Jukebox,” music director Robert Reddrick has enlisted bandleader/guitarist Oscar Brown Jr., Adam Sherrod (keys), Mark Miller (bass) and Myron Cherry (drums). Perched on a platform above the stage, the band nimbly morphs between styles with a fluidity that makes it look easy.
As an expression of grief and celebration, the music in “Grandma’s Jukebox” strikes a powerful chord.