Change is afoot at Black Ensemble Theater as it prepares to embark on a new era, leveraging a $5 million grant to implement founder and CEO Jackie Taylor’s longtime vision of a Free To Be corridor, which would expand the footprint of the theater campus and provide housing and support opportunities for artists and community. Taylor’s vision of growth doesn’t end at infrastructure, however. She’s also invited a new associate director, Michelle Reneé Bester, to the Black Ensemble artistic team. Bester, who is the writer and director of the new musical Grandma’s Jukebox, represents a welcome addition to the artistic leadership team, which in the long term stands to greatly benefit from a refreshing young, female voice bringing a new perspective to the established Black Ensemble brand.
Through 6/26: Fri 7 PM, Sat 3 and 7 PM, Sun 3 PM; Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark, 773-769-4451, blackensembletheater.org, $55.
In the past, the theater has mostly featured historical cabaret-style shows—jukebox musicals which string together an artist’s greatest hits, or the hits of an era, together with a series of vignettes that loosely construct a story. Bester’s new work (though still a jukebox musical) radically departs from this form by following a traditional narrative structure, a refreshing change of pace. Grandma’s Jukebox follows the story of a Black family mourning the recent loss of their matriarch. When confronted with the details of their grandmother’s will and last requests, the family struggles to pull together in their sorrow, but finds encouragement through Grandma’s unexpected presence speaking through otherworldly means.
The family members are played by Aeriel Williams, Vincent Jordan, Jessica Brooke Seals, and Blake Reasoner. Williams convincingly plays a childlike, tenderhearted woman overwhelmed by grief, from whom no one expects much of anything. Jordan is hilarious as an older brother trying to hustle his way out of the stigma of having a criminal record. Seals is heartbreakingly dynamic as the tough cookie powering through a bad relationship alone. And Reasoner is a fun and earnest younger brother who uses humor as healing for unspeakable trauma. J. Michael Wright delivers nonstop chuckles as the family friend and unofficial adopted child whom Grandma tasks with carrying out her final wishes.
Unsurprisingly, the vocals in this show are absolutely amazing, as is the case with every Black Ensemble show. Other theaters may have amazing singers, but this theater has the corner on the market for those who can SANG. Every play doubles as a top-notch concert that is worth the price of admission alone, backed by the truly excellent band, led by Oscar Brown Jr.
Outside of the vocals, however, the play is challenged structurally. The first hour drags by very slowly, weighed down by clunky exposition and dialogue, and an unfortunate lack of forward momentum and surprise. Many of the recollections of Grandma feel repetitive and cliché. At one point, when the characters reveal a bit of specificity—that Grandma was married multiple times—one glimpses the possibility of much more interesting storylines not followed. The elements of magical realism are teased throughout, but brought to bear too late, and not frequently enough. I was left yearning for a lot more of the hilarious communication with Grandma, parenting her family from the great beyond.
During the last half hour the play finally finds a rhythm, and Bester utilizes some interesting storytelling devices. The exploration of themes of generational trauma and intentional healing are a welcome addition to the theatrical conversation that left the audience with quite a bit to contemplate.
It is refreshing to see one of the most established theaters in Chicago take a new and promising writer and allow her grace to experiment and grow with a fully-backed production on its mainstage. Many theaters may claim to take “risk” while putting out perfectly polished (and perfectly safe) new works, but this is an example of real risk, with the real reward of creative experimentation. When Bester walked out onto the stage at the end of the play to an applauding audience and was praised by Taylor, both of their eyes shimmered with tears, a testament to what real risk, bravery, and generational mentorship looks like. One certainly looks forward to seeing what Bester’s next piece will bring to the Black Ensemble stage.