RedEye

Finding racial harmony in song at BET

At one point in "From Doo Wop to Hip Hop," a Black Ensemble show that just tickled me pink, one of the characters says something along these lines: "We're not the same color. But we're all brothers. The proof is in the music." That's pretty much the ubertext of the night, just as it has been the guiding principle of this particular theater company since it was first founded more than 20 years ago. I'd suggest that line for artistic director Jackie Taylor's tombstone, except that it needs the word "sisters" and that Taylor displays distinct signs of immortality.

Is this a profound message? No, it's simplistic. Pollyannaish. I sometimes think reviews of this very singular theater company, where the story is always this story, need to come with a disclaimer similar to the Byzantine set of caveats crafted by the U.S. Supreme Court for its Bush v. Gore decision. They only apply to this particular set of circumstances. They contain no exportable general principles. They imply no precedent. But art is local and temporal, and at this particular moment in Chicago, boy, does the glorious optimism and warmth of this piece feed the tired spirit.

Who around here is not ready for a show that wants not only to trace a direct line from Burt Bacharach to Common — a line traceable only at BET — but to suggest that the color of one's skin is irrelevant as long as one feels the music? There are more white folks in "From Doo Wop to Hip Hop" than any show I've seen at this theater these many years, and it feels like a deliberate push for what Black Ensemble likes to think of as nontraditional casting.

Taylor and her collaborator Rueben Echoles are making their case for unity — and if you miss that particular metaphor, they've actually set the entire show on the street of a fictional neighborhood called Unison Hills, where everybody helps neighbors through crises and where they all like to sing on their stoops. It's like a combination of Mayberry, Sesame Street and Spike Lee's "Crooklyn."

They've got quite the rule-breaking jukebox playing here: Amy Winehouse, a hip-hop version of "16 Candles," Lesley Gore, Black Eyed Peas. It takes guts for a white gal (in this case Megan Murphy) to wail out "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" for this particularly sophisticated audience, where they've seen more Arethas than an in-house bartender at a Las Vegas drag show. And she kills. On Sunday afternoon, Murphy stopped the show. They don't take those kinds of risks at "Mamma Mia!"

Actually, there are three knockout vocalists in this cast at a theater that has clearly made a commitment to finding new talent: John Keating, who plays a dweeby mailman who belts out "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" between delivering letters and who belongs in "The Book of Mormon," and a young singer named Brandon Markell Holmes, who can switch styles on a dime. Taylor knows the comic value of sticking white actors (like the very game Matthew Payne) into shows celebrating black music, but she is also generous enough to set them up so they can win. So it goes here, in a show rooted in fine work from this company's senior stars, including Dwight Neal, Kelvin Roston Jr. and Cynthia F. Carter.

By Act 2, when the various plots of familial strife and community misunderstandings get tied up in a big block party concert, the good times sure as heck roll.

Black Ensemble has long been about promoting optimism, community and feelings of togetherness. This particular show, which showcases this new North Side theater better than any show to date, goes one further. It makes the case that racial divisions in Chicagoland are totally absurd, especially when there's trouble abroad and songs within.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through April 14

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

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $55-$65 at 773-769-4451 and blackensembletheater.org

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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