Rueben Echoles comes from a family of artists, singers and dancers. So it was a given that from an early age he would be introduced to the work of the great African-American artists and performers in these disciplines.
‘My Brother’s Keeper — The Story of the Nicholas Brothers’
When: To March 26
Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark
Tickets: $55, $65
But it is one introduction that stuck with him through the ensuring years — a clip of the fabulous tap dance team, Harold and Fayard Nicholas, in the classic African-American musical “Stormy Weather.”
“I was hooked the minute I saw them jump down those stairs,” Echoles recalls. “They were just so amazing. Their showmanship was beyond anything I had ever seen.”
In 2004, when Black Ensemble Theater artistic director Jackie Taylor wrote “The Way We Were,” a musical history of African-American entertainment in the 1920s-1940s, Echoles, who by now was a regular performer at BET, suggested she include the Nicholas Brothers. She did and out of that would later grow a show penned by Echoles: “My Brother’s Keeper — The Story of the Nicholas Brothers.”
The musical bio is the first entry in a BET season dedicated to African-American dance ranging from the Harlem Renaissance to hip-hop. Echoles directs and portrays Harold with Rashawn Thompson as Fayard. The show features original music along with classics from Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Dorothy Dandridge, who was married to Harold.
An earlier 2010 version of “My Brothers Keeper” was “more of a play with music,” Echoles says. Dance and music elements have been ramped up for the current version. “Now it’s a full musical plus the story is very different. I’m excited how it has evolved,” he adds.
As Echoles did his research, he says Harold and Fayard became “more human and relatable.” He tells their story through the eyes of their first wives and their mother.
“A mother, of course, knows you before you know yourself,” he says. “I thought that was an interesting point of view in comparison to the women they fell in and out of love with.”
Over a seven-decade career, The Nicholas Brothers broke many racial barriers and became one of the most famous dance teams of the 20th century; fans included Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Fred Astaire. The brothers started out in vaudeville and nightclubs and moved on to Broadway but made their biggest impact in film.
“Whenever they hit the stage, they just light up the screen,” Echoles says. “You can’t take your eyes off them. Their showmanship is spectacular, and they inspire me to be a better performer.”
Slick and debonair in the clip from “Stormy Weather” (watch it on YouTube), the brothers, daring and fearless dance innovators, propel themselves onto bandstands and up stairs often flying off these and landing in splits. This is all done with what seems like effortless ease.
Echoles, who also choreographed the show, recognizes that replicating the Nicholas Brothers’ stunning and very acrobatic dance moves, which in the movie were probably pieced together over several takes, is nearly impossible. But he feels capturing the essence of their style is doable.
“I know as a human being that I can’t do exactly what they do six times a week and stay healthy,” Echoles says with a laugh. “So I’ve had to modify the choreography in a way that still pays tribute to them and what they achieved.”
Thompson, who is equally in awe of the Nicholas Brothers, says he is concentrating on capturing more of Fayard’s style and has been concentrating on his arm movements.
“Before I would always just look at my feet and make sure I was getting the taps right but I would never worry about what my arms were doing,” Thompson explains. “But with Fayard, I realized I could do a lot more in portraying him if I make my arms have some life and that’s been challenging for me.”
Echoles hopes this telling of the Nicholas Brothers’ story inspires theatergoers to do some research of their own.
“I hope people want to learn more about this great dance team and their connection to African-American history,” Echoles says. “Look up a film, read a biography. Everyone should know their story.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.