Updates keep ‘The Other Cinderella’ fresh — and relevant — after 43 years

The reimagined fairy tale by Black Ensemble Theater has been a holiday tradition for multiple generations of families.

SHARE Updates keep ‘The Other Cinderella’ fresh — and relevant — after 43 years
Cinderella (Jayla Williams Craig) and the Prince (Blake Hawthorne) in “The Other Cinderella” at Black Ensemble Theater.”Credit: Alan Davis

Cinderella (Jayla Williams Craig) and the Prince (Blake Hawthorne) in “The Other Cinderella” at Black Ensemble Theater.

Alan Davis

Like a lot of people, Jackie Taylor is looking forward to spending the holiday season with loved ones — hers just happen to be a Prince, a Fairygodmama and Cinderella.

As writer and director of Black Ensemble Theater’s “The Other Cinderella,” now in its 43rd year, Taylor likened the production to an annual family reunion.

“I love every single character. They’re my babies, and I never get tired of them coming home,” she said.

The Other Cinderella

‘The Other Cinderella’

When: Through Jan. 19

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

Tickets: $55-$65

Info: blackensembletheater.org

Generations of Chicagoans have been charmed by Taylor’s version of the fairy tale, with people who first saw the show as kids returning with their own children and even grandchildren.

“It just reminds me, damn, I’m getting old,” laughed the 67-year-old Taylor, BET’s founder and CEO.

“The Other Cinderella” has come a long way since the days when Taylor was a young teacher looking for a way to engage and inspire her students. 

“The children were failing and I was having a difficult time,” she recalled. “I came into the classroom and said, ‘The old Miss Taylor is gone. What do you want to learn?’ ”

The answer was “Cinderella,” the youngsters having recently watched the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. So Taylor agreed that at the end of every day, when all other lessons had been completed, the class could work on the play — with a caveat: “I told them, ‘We can’t do Rodgers and Hammerstein. That’s not our culture.’ ”

Taylor set about tweaking the plot to create a contemporary African American fable. She took the title character and plopped her down in the projects, gave her a Stepmama who works at the Post Office and a Jamaican Fairygodmama, and surrounded her with Brothers From the ’Hood.

It’s the kind of representation the broader entertainment industry is only just now coming around to, but one that BET was founded to push forward. “It should be common sense that people like to see their own culture, and they relate to their own culture,” Taylor said.

At the same time, “The Other Cinderella’s” underlying universal themes speak to people of all races, creeds and colors, she said, which makes it the perfect vehicle for the ensemble to further its mission of eradicating racism through theater.

“Our audiences are very, very diverse. You can’t eradicate racism by preaching to the choir,” Taylor said. “It took us awhile to figure out that formula.”

With its high-energy song-and-dance numbers, which borrow less from Broadway and more from Motown and hip-hop, and a script that’s full of winks and nods, “The Other Cinderella” puts crowd-pleasing above all else.

This year’s show features Jayla Williams-Craig as Cinderella and Blake Hawthorne in his first starring role as the Prince. “He’s so talented and gorgeous on top of it,” Taylor said.

Rhonda Preston returns for a 10th turn as the Stepmamma, a role she’s aged into over the years. “When she started, she was almost too young, but she pulled it off,” said Taylor.

Over the past four decades, Taylor has continuously updated the show to keep it current, in both small and large ways. Back in the ’70s, Cindy’s glass slipper was a platform shoe, today it’s an elegant heel. And when the King orders a message sent via telegram, his minions suggest using Facebook instead. (His response: “The kingdom is old school.”)

Cinderella herself has evolved, along with the notion of what constitutes a “happily ever after.”

“What women were taught to strive for, that’s different today. Women are realizing we’re not second place,” said Taylor. 

Her Cinderella isn’t looking for a prince to complete her, a point that’s emphasized in the script.

“She makes a comment about recognizing her whole self, but it’s nice to have a topping [the prince] on the cake,” Taylor said.

Patty Wetli is a local freelance writer.

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