Black Ensemble Theater’s latest follows the company’s tried-and-true formula with an otherworldly twist. In Blue Heaven, written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks (BET’s producing managing director), a quartet of deceased blues greats—Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, and Stevie Ray Vaughan (no nickname)—hang out at “Pearly’s,” a heavenly juke joint, where they await the new arrival: Riley B. King, better known as B.B.
The premise is that each new blues great who arrives has to go through a ritual of forgiving themselves for something they did on earth, or resolve some pain inside themselves. So Howlin’ Wolf (Lyle Miller) comes to grips with being abandoned by his mother. Big Mama Thornton (Miciah Lathan) relives witnessing the accidental self-inflicted shooting death of Johnny Ace backstage after a gig. Stevie Ray (Billy Rude) regrets the years lost to addiction. And Dwight Neal’s Muddy? Well, he mostly feels bad about his trip into psychedelia, 1968’s Electric Mud (an album the real Muddy later characterized as “dogshit.”) And though B.B. (Aaron Reese Boseman) claims he made his peace with everyone before he died, a painful story about seeing one of his 15 kids—daughter Patricia—in the audience of prisoners at a jail in Gainesville (he didn’t even know she had been incarcerated) suggests a lot of paternal guilt accompanied him to the other side.
Really, though, what this show mostly does is provide an excuse for the five performers, backed by a killer four-piece band led by Adam Sherrod, to jam out on two dozen classics, beginning with Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” to Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain” (popularized by white artists Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin) to Muddy’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Vaughan’s “Rude Mood.” And of course Boseman’s B.B. tears up “The Thrill Is Gone.”
The theme of appropriation by white musicians is broached. When Rude’s Vaughan says “practice makes perfect,” Miller’s Wolf retorts, “Practicing? Or stealing?” Rude (a vet of the national tour of Million Dollar Quartet) plays Vaughan as a deferential, though blisteringly talented, disciple of those who came before him. As the only woman (and a lesbian, too), Lathan’s Thornton pays tribute to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, while making it clear how much harder the road was for her than for the guys.
Though the stories may just scratch the surface of these phenomenal lives, the songs raise the rafters. Miller’s guttural growl, Neal’s assured swagger, Lathan’s straight-from-the-shoulder delivery, Boseman’s flashes of anguish, and Rude’s superb guitar work all land with force and joy. Black Ensemble Theater’s founder and CEO, Jackie Taylor, jokes that coming to her theater is like coming to church (because there are collection baskets in the lobby). Brooks’s ensemble shines in this heavenly dive into the blues.