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."

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