Playwright: Rueben Echoles. At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: $55-$65. Runs through: Sept. 3
A competitionwhether between warring nations, athletic clubs or ambitious entertainersis suspenseful in its very concept, but rarely is the victory quickly determined. Compressing the events to the abbreviated length dictated by modern theater practice can be accomplished by dividing the dramatic focus according to geography ( battlefield/headquarters, dugout/arena, dressing room/runway ), or rank ( soldiers/generals, teammates/coaches, directors/performers ). Ah, but what if you want to include representatives from all these demographics?
You do what author Rueben Echoles has done in his roman a tiroirs ( "play of drawers" ) framed in a reality-television dance competition. The action opens in the 814 Studios during the final rounds, allowing a dozen contenders to be swiftly whittled down to half that number. The show's producer and choreographer double as the contest judges, with a rap artist "celebrity judge" serving as a tie-breaking third. The singer/emcee is an up-and-coming talent, herself, albeit not yet an icon like her mother, while the house band and choir are faceless hired help. Instead of dialogue-driven offstage scenes, the climate in the trenches is conveyed in talking-head montages. Finally, the dancers are tested in groups, reducing the time required to acquaint us with the assembly.
The actors playing those first eliminated have obviously been instructed to project anonymity, the better to highlight the individuals who will continue on. These are the usual assortment found in this milieu, with a few notable exceptions, like the flamboyant gay and rigidly homophobic males, and the rare plus-sized hoofer. Director Echoles is also to be commended for casting across color lines to include three non-African-American dancers, none of whom are reduced to cheap jokes ( although when one violates contest rules by getting drunk at a club, his companions attempt to excuse his behavior, saying, "He's from Iowa! They don't get out much!" ).
This is still a lot of intrigue packed into two-and-a-half hours. Playgoers can perhaps be forgiven their attention wandering during the soapy romantic/domestic complications or the excellent vocals ( though Shari Addison's cover of "Ain't Nobody" will make your blood tingle ). Dance demands to be witnessed in the moment, however, so don't you be reading your playbill during the Stravinskian ballet vs. orchesis duel, the popping-percussive drill-formation set to Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" or the full-company finale featuring the Beyonce-Lamar arrangement of "Freedom" that reveals the true purpose of the venture we have just witnessed.