Thursday, October 16, 2014

AT LAST: A Tribute to Etta James

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 Chicago

"Etta 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.

The show 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.

Taylor's 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 church).  

In Etta 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. 

Throughout, 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).

The 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. 

But the 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."

Sunday, September 14, 2014


By Aaron Posner
Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Produced by TimeLine Theatre in Chicago
At Stage 773 through October 18, 2014

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 hooked.

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 Senior  gives 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 embarrassed.

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.