Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater Honors Curtis Mayfield’s Activist Spirit
Jackie Taylor, founder and CEO of Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater, said she always had a straightforward goal when she established the organization 37 years ago: to eradicate racism. She found that writing and directing new musical-themed plays would be crucial for achieving that goal since, she said, “music has already crossed cultural barriers and it has united us in many different ways.” While past productions have celebrated Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Otis Redding, the theater’s current play, It’s All-Right To Have A Good Time: The Story Of Curtis Mayfield, narrates the life of a Chicago artist whose activist spirit matches her own. The show opened on Sept. 22.
“People call Curtis the black Bob Dylan because of the impact of his music and proficiency and magnitude,” Taylor said. “I would turn it around and say that Bob Dylan is the white Curtis Mayfield. The impact he had on the industry is amazing, but also on the nation. The time that he came about, there weren’t message songs. There were love songs, and the beginning of Motown, but it wasn’t message songs. He suffered a lot in terms of not being able to have his music played on the radio, being blackballed for what he said and how he said it. But he fought through and he won.”
Taylor wrote It’s All-Right and co-directed the play with Daryl D. Brooks. The story is told as a series of flashbacks from the perspective of an older Mayfield, portrayed by Reginald Torian, whose own career has prepared him for the part: For much of the past few decades, he has sung in Mayfield’s former group, The Impressions. Singer-actor Cecil Jones portrays Mayfield during his early years. That story takes him from the city’s Cabrini Green housing projects with his friend and collaborator Jerry Butler, to struggles during The Impressions’ early years, to writing for a host of Chicago artists, to scoring soundtracks and running the Curtom Record label. The play also provides a succinct explanation of his technique of tuning his guitar to a piano’s black keys. Torian as Mayfield describes the 1990 accident at an outdoor Brooklyn, N.Y., concert when a lighting fixture was knocked down and left the singer paralyzed. But the story is ultimately uplifting, as Mayfield refuses to let the adversity prevent him from recording (Mayfield died on Dec. 26, 1999, at age 57).
Much of the play’s energy focuses around Mayfield’s songs as part of 1960s Chicago’s Record Row (“Mama Didn’t Lie”), civil rights-era anthems (“Keep On Pushing”) and his hits from films (“Superfly”). As Mayfield, Jones vividly captures the youthful optimism that brought out these songs, as well as his driving sense of self-determination. The ensemble’s seven-piece house band is also central to the production, and they’re not relegated to an orchestra pit, or behind the stage. Drummer Robert Reddrick serves as the theater’s musical director. Chicago jazz musicians, including keyboardist Justin Dillard and trombonist Bill McFarland, are also prominent in this group.
“Musicians are not secondary to the production—everybody is all on the same plane,” Taylor said. “It was my belief when I started that musicians had to be singing, and I got criticized a lot for that. People get stuck in their habits of what they think is socially correct, and that’s usually socially stupid. So I put them out front.”
The Black Ensemble Theater moved into its own recently constructed building on 4450 N. Clark St. with an acoustically pristine auditorium two years ago. The goal is to expand the organization’s role as a cultural institution.
“About 15 years ago I started talking about institutionalizing the ensemble, because I didn’t want it to be a one-woman operation,” Taylor said. “If I got hit by a bus or if I fell in love and decided to move away, I didn’t want the theater to vanish. I had to start building an infrastructure so that wouldn’t happen.”
For more information on the Black Ensemble Theater and It’s All-Right To Have A Good Time, go to blackensembletheater.org.