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THEATER REVIEW Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-12-22

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Playwright: Daryl D. Brooks

At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: $55-$65. Runs through: Jan. 21

If you were given two days to abandon your partner and marry someone of your own "color" or suffer bodily harm, would you do it? If the presidential candidate you supported asked you to postpone your wedding until after the election, would you grant his request? If you were the headliner at one of the top hotels in Las Vegas, but your family was refused lodgings thereat, would you abide by your contract?

Those inclined nowadays to dismiss Sammy Davis, Jr. as undeserving of respect—didn't he make lots of money, and didn't he hobnob with popular white entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin ( Italian-Americans with their own history of ethnic prejudice )—do well to consider the price paid by the high-profile showman whose six-decade career encompassed every artistic genre and whose vocalizations spanned jazz, rhythm and blues, Broadway, film scores, country, Motown soul and even opera—versatility lifting him to the heights of stardom in all its opulent and lonely splendor.

Far from being a straightforward hagiography, the portrait offered by Daryl D. Brooks for this Black Ensemble musical revue does not flinch from recounting the obstacles faced by his African-American hero in the mid-20th century, engendered by both a society unnerved at increasingly assertive "minorities" as well as by parochialism within those same communities. Neither does Brooks minimize the courage required for Davis to make his comeback a mere three years after losing the sight in one eye following an automobile accident—injury impairing his balance and threatening to end his dancing days forever.

Brooks' script does not dwell on these gloomy setbacks, however, instead contenting itself to serve up a string of familiar chart-toppers such as "Me and My Shadow," "I Gotta Be Me" and "What Kind of Fool Am I?" before concluding with a reverent "Mr. Bojangles." These are distributed among a dozen diverse singers encompassing powerhouse baritones, sassy songbirds and silky-sleek crooners, all declaring their right to "sing like Sammy." A premise attracting so wide a demographic makes for many theatergoers arriving with first-hand memories of the real-life events under scrutiny, but for those who don't, Aaron Quick's projections of vintage photographic footage connect the personnel of bygone eras with their post-millennium descendants, thus securing the legacy of a history too easily forgotten.


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