‘It’s Just Like Coming to Church’ offers songs of praise to ease our troubles

Between the sometimes soaring, sometimes solemn musical numbers, soulful Black Ensemble Theater artists give faces and voices to a series of societal issues.

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MJ Rawls (left) performs in “It’s Just Like Coming to Church” with Noelle Klyce and Ciarra Stroud.

Alan Davis

Less than four hours before curtain time at Black Ensemble Theater’s Saturday night performance of “It’s Just Like Coming to Church (Welcome to The Church of You),” news broke that Black transwoman activist Elise Malary’s body had been found along the Evanston lakefront. She had been reported missing on March 11; fliers with her photo are plastered on the storefront windows around BET’s Uptown space.

That’s the brutal, inescapable, real-life context of a scene when MJ Rawls, a Black, trans activist playing a Black, trans activist in BET’s musical revue, stands in a stark spotlight proclaiming that she has to “fight every day, just to be.” After speaking on the immense challenges on her road to self-acceptance, Rawls then delivers a triumphant, passionate rendition of Lionel Richie’s “Jesus Is Love,” filling the theater with a defiant and celebratory mood. Whatever your thoughts on Jesus, you can’t deny the urgency and conviction Rawls brings to the music and the stage.

Penned and directed by BET’s Founding Artistic Director Jackie Taylor, “It’s Just Like Coming to Church” feels rather like a balm in a time of pandemic and war, when the awful news is so relentless we literally had to make up words to describe it, like “doomscrolling.”

‘It’s Just Like Coming to Church (Welcome to the Church of You)’

‘It’s Just Like Coming to Church’

When: Through April 24

Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark

Tickets: $55

Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Info: www.blackensemble.org, (773) 769-4451

The setup is simple: Preach (Dawn Bless) and Deacon (Vincent Jordan) are leading a choir of four griots, or African storytellers: Michelle (Rawls), Maven (Noelle Klyce), Leah (Ciarra Stroud) and Will (Deshaun Peters).

Each griot gets solo time to testify and sing. We learn about their joys and sorrows between songs, and are encouraged to praise something greater than ourselves along with them in song. “This ain’t no just-sit-there kind of place,” a charismatic, authoritative Bless informs the audience and, indeed, call-and-response is a defining characteristic of many of the numbers.

Taylor’s script is a series of monologues, ardently shoehorned around 16 songs of praise and thanksgiving by composers including Richie, Stevie Wonder and Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Taylor herself contributes “Love Yourself Until the End of Time,” an upbeat Pointer Sisters-esque bop.

Most of the music is a combination of soaring and solemn, as the griots give faces and voices to a series of societal issues. Deacon talks of the faith he found after a gun misfired and he was saved from getting shot at point-blank range. Leah recalls how her mother hated her own dark skin. Maven is tormented by the lies of “depression and anxiety,” which are embodied by a masked, tattered, malignant mummy. Rawls talks about finding the strength to live in her truth and transition.

With all-important music direction by Robert Reddrick, “It’s Just Like Coming to Church” creates a joyful noise throughout. Bless sets the mood in the opener, a rousing rendition of “Hold on Change is Coming,” its thundering, defiant optimism inescapable. Stroud’s delivery of “Never Alone” has the reach of a beacon as she delivers a plea for self-compassion in the face of devastating mental health issues. In Jordan’s massively vulnerable delivery, “Worth Saving” crescendos to a power that evokes the trumpets of Jericho.

The mood lightens with Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star,” given a boppy, upbeat treatment by Rawls and DeShaun Peters, who displays some suave footwork in Wonder’s “Tomorrow Robins Will Sing.”

Klyce moves with the fervent, emphatic grace of a praise dancer in “Never Would Have Made It.” And when the whole group gathers for the hymnic “Nobody Greater,” the sound can only be described as soulful.

That’s in large part to conductor-percussionist Reddrick’s four-piece band, which also includes keyboardist Adam Sherrod, bassist Wayne Jones, and guitarist Oscar Brown. Perched above the cast, they deliver a kind of rich, percussive heartbeat to the vocals.

Nobody is credited for the costumes, which are fairly subdued, at least by BET’s usual standards. Historically, there’s usually at least two high-glam costume changes. This time around, the ensemble is in beige street clothes for most of the production, although bookended by well-tailored, lightly bedazzled choir robes. It’s an aesthetic that—like the show itself—speaks on the sobering tragedies surrounding us, and the joyous triumphs the music promises.

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