‘Healing’ becomes Black Ensemble Theater’s most powerful statement on the African American experience

Where previous BET productions entertained and educated, “Healing” entertains and confronts — the element of pretend is gone.

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Blake Reasoner, MJ Rawls, Colleen Perry, Jasmine Bomer, Dwight Neal (front) Hannah Mary Simpson, Vincent Jordan, Blake Hawthorne, Stewart Romeo star in “Legends The Musical: A Civil Rights Movement, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” at Black Ensemble Theater. | Alan Davis

Dwight Neal (front) is among the cast of “Legends The Musical: A Civil Rights Movement, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” at Black Ensemble Theater.

Alan Davis

Since she founded the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976, artistic director Jackie Taylor has made eradicating racism through theater arts the institution’s mission. She’s penned more than 100 original musicals toward that end, using the lives and music of everyone from Josephine Baker to Isaac Hayes to condemn racism and celebrate inclusion.

With “The Healing” (formerly known as “Legends The Musical: A Civil Rights Movement, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”), that mission statement remains the same, but in style and substance, Taylor’s gotten a whole lot more direct in addressing it.

‘Legends The Musical: A Civil Rights Movement, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’

Untitled

When: Through April 12

Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St.

Tickets: $55 - $65

Run-time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

Info: BlackEnsembleTheater.org

Where previous BET productions entertained and educated, “The Healing” entertains and confronts — the element of pretend is gone. Written and directed by Taylor, the production doesn’t filter the dialogue through music superstars. It delivers it via direct address, straight at the audience, often with the house lights partially up and the actors addressing each other by name.

“The republic is on the verge of collapse,” Taylor’s script asserts, and it feels like she’s sending up a flare.

“We’re in a very sick period of American history right now,” says ensemble member Blake Hawthorne near the top of the show. Trump is specifically named as the architect of the sickness, the dialogue cataloguing a roster of statistics: number of children separated from their families, number of new white supremacist groups, number of unarmed African Americans killed by law enforcement.

It’s important to stress that “The Healing” is a musical revue, not a political screed. For sheer entertainment value, the show is solid. Music director Robert Reddrick’s band is a marvelously rhythmic, rollicking bunch and Taylor’s cast sounds amazing. Among the highlights, “Ball of Confusion” (performed by Blake Reasoner), “Everyday People” (Vincent Jordan), “Imagine” (Colleen Perry) and “Rise Up” (Jasmine Bomer) sizzle and soar with galvanizing power.

Dawn Bless and Dwight Neal are the cast’s charismatic vocal anchors (“Guides”), and they light up the stage whether via the sobering “We Must Remember” (Bless) or the buoyant “One Love” (Neal). Every ensemble member gets a moment to shine. Jordan asks all the right questions with “What’s Going On”; Hannah Mary Simpson pours her silvery soprano into “Heroes”; Reasoner leads “A Change Is Gonna Come” with smooth dance moves and rich pipes.

The music is interspersed with monologues. MJ Rawls, a dancer of great elegance and grace, movingly describes her journey from self-loathing adolescent to proud transwoman, culminating with a glorious refrain from Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” and a superb rendition of “Stand by Me.” Nobody actually says “Can I get an amen up in here?,” but it’s clearly warranted.

Equally stop-in-your-tracks-memorable: Stewart Romeo as Nat Turner, the child prodigy and slave who became a charismatic preacher and led one the bloodiest uprisings of the pre-Civil War South. Romeo barely raises his voice, but it feels like Turner is screaming.

“Healing” is one of at least four shows currently running in Chicago that name of victims of police brutality or lynching. (“Today it’s called police brutality. Yesterday it was called lynching,” says Taylor’s script.) At BET, DJ Douglass’ projection design flickers through a lengthy array of names and faces, joining ranks with TimeLine’s “Kill Move Paradise,” The Goodman’s “graveyard shift” and Steep Theatre’s “Sad Songs for Lost Boys” in addressing police brutality. As the projections continue, Taylor’s dialogue explains what each person was doing when they died: Walking home. Selling cigarettes. Playing in a park. Watching TV. Sleeping.

There are celebratory lists, too, including a pantheon of black inventors and leaders, their accomplishments (first successful open-heart surgery, inventor of the mailbox, leader of the Stonewall uprising) serving as a surge of defiant hope. The montage of heroes spans centuries, from 18th century abolitionist/inventor Josiah Henson to Saint Sabina activist/priest Father Michael Pfleger). When Harriet Tubman stares out from the screen, you can’t help but ponder what she’d do now.

Tellingly, Taylor forgoes her usual sparkly gowns and suits for costumes, instead outfitting the cast in simple black ensembles, each one subtly signaling the personality of the performer wearing it. Bek Lambrecht’s set features a raised platform and little else. Lemond Hayes’ choreography eschews flash and drama, but tells stories as clearly as the spoken dialogue.

Right before curtain call, Taylor demands the audience take a pledge. The words scroll across the projection screen, so the audience can speak it aloud. You can take it or not. What you won’t be able to do is ignore it.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

Editor’s Note: This review was published prior to an announcement on March 9 that Black Ensemble Theater’s founder/artistic director Jackie Taylor changed the show’s title to “The Healing.” Title references have been changed throughout the review to reflect this.

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