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THEATER REVIEW The Black Renaissance (A Musical Resistance Against Racism)
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2017-11-01

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Script and new songs: Jackie Taylor

At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: 773-769-4451 or BlackEnsemble.org; $45-$65

Runs through: Nov. 19

Ending racism has been built into the mission statement of Black Ensemble Theater since its inception more than 40 years ago. So the company is truly honoring its roots with the timely new revue The Black Renaissance ( A Musical Resistance Against Racism ).

The Black Renaissance is a reactionary response to America's growing divisive political situation under the Trump administration. But rather than focusing entirely on the now, The Black Renaissance looks to history for context as a way to educate, enlighten and entertain.

Company founder and director Jackie Taylor spearheads The Black Renaissance. Her script packs in plenty of history to wrestle with the U.S. roots of slavery, racism and even self-hatred to grapple with each of their insidious and lingering legacies today.

But Taylor ensures that The Black Renaissance isn't a dry history lesson or lecture. Taylor's eclectic song score features styles including R&B, gospel and rap to get to the emotional core of universal truths recognized by African-American and their allies throughout time.

And vitally, the songs give each member of the very talented 13-member ensemble a chance to vocally shine individually and as a unified group. Some of the vocal standouts include the commanding Rhonda Preston, a soulful Dwight Neal and the powerful Lekeya Shearrill and Janaah Coats.

Ensemble member Reuben D. Echoles' choreography is also a nice touch, particularly in an early number focusing on the enduring African origins among a group of American slaves celebrating a wedding ceremony. Linnea Norwood and Michael Adkins are impressive as the daunted young couple.

Structurally, The Black Renaissance doesn't stick to its initial path. Most of its first act is a dash up to Reconstruction, but Act II skimps on the history to deal with more day-to-day concerns like uncovering and calling out institutionalized racism among other intersectional "-isms." So audiences expecting a lot of 20th-century history might feel slighted.

And on the performance level, there is room for some improvement. At the post-opening performance I attended, some of the ensemble choreography wasn't as precisely or confidently executed as it could have been. Also, there were some coordination hesitancies with vocal entrances to many songs.

Audibility can also be an issue at time, whether it's a balance issue by sound/projection designer Aaron Quick, or if some ensemble members aren't enunciating as crisply as they could be.

But overall, The Black Renaissance does its part to inform, inspire and reassure audiences caught up in our fraught political times. And that's what makes it so powerful and vital.


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