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Review of AT LAST: A Tribute to Etta James Written and directed by Jackie Taylor Co-director Daryl D. Brooks, Musical Director Robert Reddrick Through December 28, 2014 At the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicagowww.blackensemble.org
James. Etta James, Etta James, I gotta have my Etta James." This refrain
is repeated over and over again in an almost ritualized fashion evoking the
great singer of blues, jazz, country blues, soul, rock and roll, and just about
anything else that was thrown at her in Jackie Taylor's dramatized revue AT
LAST: A TRIBUTE TO ETTA JAMES at the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago.
posits the many Etta James' and has five wonderful singers portraying each of
her multi-dimensions played by Candace Edwards, Arzula Gardner Melanie McCullogh, Alanna Taylor, and Yahdina Udeen.Each has a different aspect of her personality and each
has her own incredible singing voice. One who is more soulful, to one who is
more gutsy, to one who is more childlike, to one who is more bluesy, and to one
who is a more straight-ahead composite of all them. And the women explore the
many personalities behind the songs at the prodding and demanding of one Ms.
Real. She insists that they are all brought together to understand and pay
tribute to the great person that they all represent.
dramatic revue is about how Ms. Real, played by Rueben Echoles,who is conducting the "tribute"
to Etta, insists that they must explore the different facets of Etta's
psychology: her bouts with depression and drugs, her self hating, her problems
with men and her inability to love herself. And the show has the many Etta
James' argue with themselves and sing their hearts out from one hit song to
another (with much support from the audience who do shout outs as though at
James' memoir "Rage to Survive" she has to go through such therapeutic
experiences, when she is given the choice by a judge to go to rehab
or go to jail for her drug habits as well as other crimes she has committed.
She chose rehab and just as in Taylor's show, Etta resisted learning about her
psychological disorders with all her might.
each singer taunts the other in opposition, counterpoint and in exploration of
the true Etta James. This is enacted in the second act by a singing competition
and each Etta James tries to outdo the other in singing prowess reaching and
raising the rafters on each song and finally coming to the realization that
each is an important aspect of who Etta is. Imagine James Brown, Phoebe Snow,
Diana Ross, Roberta Flack and Mahalia Jackson all combined into one and maybe
you'll understand the power and emotion of Etta James. Clearly Jackie Taylor
milks the most out of these singing voices (and Etta's voice did change over
the course of her career).
weaknesses in the piece are in the scriptwriting, especially in the first act as
it sets up the confrontations in the second act, and in how it doesn't really
tell us much about Etta James' life story. According to her memoir it is
fascinating, dramatic, heartbreaking, and poignant.
singing and the performances of each of the Etta James' is truly amazing. They
go from one iconic song to the next and finally end on what we have all been
waiting for "At Last." And even though we know that this is where
they are heading from the very beginning -- as we hear from each actor singing
from the depths of Etta's soul, we must join in and say "Etta James, Etta
James, Etta James, I gotta have my Etta James."
Alex Weisman as Asher Lev, Lawrence Grimm as the Father, Danica Monroe as the Mother
When I was 12 years old I
read a book that changed my life. It was The Chosen by Chaim Potok. I marveled at how Potok was able to
capture the beauty of Judaism and at the same time depict a secular world with
exciting baseball games, the joys of literature and the ideas of Western
thought. Then The Promise and My
Name Is Asher Lev came out and I was
Potok’s book My Name Is
Asher Lev struck home for me
personally, since Asher was an artist and I was in theatre and a singer. For me
the creative impulses of being an artist and a Jew came from the same spiritual
place. I found a Judaism which lived and breathed through storytelling, humor,
song, dance, performance and textualities coming from Judaism’s ‘thousands of
years’ dialectic with Torah and Talmud. Also the Judaism I followed had
experiences in chavurot or small
fervent communities with ecstatic prayer, meditative practices, and creative
experiences. It is no wonder that Chaim Potok was one of the leading lights for
the Chavurah Movement of young Jews, starting in the 60s and 70s.
The play of Asher Lev is set against the landscape of a world where it is
dangerous to be a Jew, where the wonder of life cries out to be explored
through creative expression, and about the intense passion from a Chasidic way
of life that. Showing the pressures on Asher and his Chasidic family in a 1950s
household in Brooklyn after the Holocaust and during the reign of Stalin in the
Soviet Union, the play takes place when Jewish communities were rebuilding
their lives. The parents, who are emissaries – shluchim – for the Rebbe the spiritual leader of their
community, have to deal with an inquisitive and creative son who is passionate
about “idolatrous” art, which is anathema to their world. While doing the
Rebbe’s work, Asher’s mother suffers the loss of her brother and she goes into
a deep depression.
Asher, in the play as our
narrator, looks back in time and describes his predicament living with a
depressed mother and his yearning to create art. As we the audience hear his
tale, we long for him to leave his home and find himself. Eventually he goes on
to study art (through a recommendation by the Rebbe) and he grows up to become
the thing that his parents do not want, a famous artist.
But as Asher narrates, he
speaks as though disembodied, without much connection to his parents, to
Judaism or himself. It is telling that in the talkback discussion after the
show, Alex Weisman the actor who played Asher, responded to a question by
saying that he believed the play is more about the parents than it is about
Asher Lev. This basic misconception of Potok’s intent was apparent from the
performance and this production.
Purposely, Potok uses Chasidism
because it is a branch of Judaism known for emphasizing the awe in the universe
that can be found in every human action, from the trivial to the portentous. It
is a Judaism that leads the person in prayer to the celestial heights. It is
filled with music, dance, storytelling and intellectual discourse, and even, at
times, through drink and wild merriment.
Alex Weisman as Asher Lev
Sadly, director Kimberly
Seniorgives no emphasis to how Asher’s artistic passion is related to his Chasidic roots. A fine
director (great work in Northlight’s The Whipping Man), I am sorry to say that this play gets away from her. Its deep themes of spiritual and Jewish content are not evident in her
work with the actors or in the staging.
An example, Asher is supposed to have payos
(side hair curls) that Chasidic boys and men grow out. They are
continually referred to as a major part of his identity. Yet he doesn’t have
them and looks quite “reformed Jewish” (Weisman words describing his own
Jewish upbringing, in the talkback).
A missed historical detail is
in the costume choice for the Rebbe. Astonishingly he comes out in a modern
synagogue-style tallit (prayer
shawl), rather than, either, a traditional Polish-style coat and shtreiml (fur hat) or a large fedora typically worn by the
Lubavitcher Rebbe -- the sect Potok used as the inspiration for this fictionalized sect, as the Ladover.
A more important scene is when Asher, who is now taking classes
in an artist’s studio, is going to paint a live nude model for the first time. This
scene entirely loses its world shattering impact for
Asher, because the female model partially disrobes for only a second and Asher
barely registers it. Yet this moment should have been a telling one for him. Afterwards he tries to explain it to his parents, about why drawing
nudes is so important for an artist. Clearly, in the script he is
affected and brought to some sense of the mystery of the female body, as a
transcendent and revelatory moment. But on stage it seemed rushed and
A bizarre production choice
is the fact that Asher, who is constantly drawing, shows his pictures to his
parents, yet nothing is on the page. He then posts them on a large wall and
before us are a lot of blank pieces of paper looking like a lot of ‘post-its’.
It is emblematic of this production, that where we look for the art from the
page, we can’t find it conceptually on the stage.
Most importantly, a major theme
of the play is the question of Jewish identity and the need for healing the
world and the Jewish people after the trauma and losses of the Holocaust. Yet in
this production the Jewish specificity is a mundane story of
generational conflict, creating a blandness throughout.
Asher’s parents go to his gallery opening and see his painting “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” a painting of his
mother on a cross at his gallery show. Potok’s point, and what
makes his work so interesting, is that Asher appropriates and transforms this
symbol into a Jewish one for a post-Holocaust era, bringing Chagall’s “White
Crucifixion” to mind. Going back to his Chasidic roots to bring the Moshiach “now,” the Messiah who will redeem the Jewish people and the
world, Asher paints what is deep in his soul and even within the soul of his
people. Ironically, it is this painting that shakes his parents to their very core as Jews, yearning for their son to embody the values they believe in. Though we see shock in his parent’s faces when they see the piece,
the lack of a performative Jewish concept in the production and the way the scene is played, leaves the moment colorless.
At the end the character looks into a mirror
as he faces the audience. Looking at himself (and at us) he says, “My name is
Asher Lev,” the translation of his Hebrew name meaning “heart of happiness.”
But this production does not go to that heart. Potok is exploring the search
for identity, out of deep Jewish historical roots of creativity, revelation,
exile, trauma, and transformation. It is for a world today that is yearning for
a spiritual and aesthetically truthful journey. Given TimeLine Theatre
Company’s great past work and its mission of presenting works from history as
they connect with us today, this production is disappointing.