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THEATER REVIEW Hail, Hail Chuck, A Tribute to Chuck Berry
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-03-05

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Playwright: L. Maceo Ferris

At: Black Ensemble Theatre, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: $55-$65. Runs through: April 1

Just to ascertain that we know where our journey starts, Black Ensemble raises the curtain on its latest revue with performances of two classics emerging from the Southern regions of the United States: Ruth Brown's "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire." Both share a 12-bar, three-chord melodic structure and lyrics differing in their arrangement of verse and refrain. Oh, yes—and for most of the 20th century, they were dubbed, respectively, "race" ( read: Black ) and "hillbilly" ( read: white ) music.

If Charles Edward Anderson Berry's only cultural contribution to the arts had been the merging of these two modes to create what is now globally called rock 'n' roll, his place in history would have been secured—but the lad who fled his family's strict religious upbringing at the height of the Great Depression to hone his guitar skills in a juvenile reformatory forged a career exceeding all expectations, while never allowing him to escape the mistrust driving him to self-defeating extremes.

At least, this is the portrait proffered by L. Maceo Ferris, whose book for this "tribute" follows the trajectory of traditional biodramas, setting up obstacles—parochial prejudices, greedy employers, inequitable law enforcement—that our hero must then overcome. Enlivening the proceedings, however, is director Daryl D. Brooks' casting of two actors in the title role and another two for that of his lifetime collaborator, Johnnie Johnson—a measure befitting the chronicle of an artist whose life spanned nearly a century—in addition to a pair of instrumentalists doubling the dazzling musicianship necessary to recreate the excitement that greeted this seminal new art form.

Of course, it can be argued that Berry was a personality so expansive—did I mention that a recording of "Johnny B. Goode" was included in the ambassadorial packet aboard the 1977 Voyager spacecraft?—that he needs six people to play him. The dynamic of single, albeit multifaceted, characters are preserved by the integrative expertise of Vincent Jordan, Lyle Miller and Oscar Brown ( on "Chuck's guitar" ) and that of Rueben D. Echoles, Kelvin Davis and Adam Sherrod, whose agile execution of a musical genre composed almost exclusively for the highest and lowest notes of the keyboard is nothing short of dazzling.


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