Black Ensemble’s reimagined ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ comes up a winner
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticemail@example.com June 10, 2013 10:36AM
Rick Stone (with Kylah Williams) plays the title role in "Ain't No Crying the Blues: In the Memory of Howlin' Wolf" at Black Ensemble Theater. | Danny Nicholas
‘Ain’t No Crying the Blues (In The Memory of
When: Through Aug. 11
Where: Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark
Info: (773) 769-4451; www.blackensemble.org
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Updated: June 10, 2013 9:11PM
It has been 10 years since Rick Stone arrived on stage at the Black Ensemble Theatre where he uncannily channeled the spirit of blues legend Howlin’ Wolf. And it is doubtful that anyone who saw him then has been able to shake the memory of the tall man with the long, rubbery legs, the big hands, the impossibly funky moves and the playfully lascivious expressions. It was a portrayal that had the audience hooting with pleasure.
Now, as the Black Ensemble Theater has settled into its fine new home, it clearly was time to revisit Howlin’ Wolf, a performer whose music and performance style had an impact on Mick Jagger and countless others. But Jackie Taylor and director Rueben Echoles weren’t about to stage a carbon copy of the original show.
To be sure, Stone is back, making his first entrance in a shiny robin’s egg blue zoot suit and matching shoes — just one of his many eye-popping outfits (applause for costume designer Kristy Leigh Hall). He playfully howls (and even gets down on all fours to prowl), and deliciously reprises many of Wolf’s hits — “Spoonful,” “Please Accept My Love,” “Howling for My Baby,” “Ain’t Superstitious,” “Smokestack Lightning,” and more, though “The Red Rooster” is sadly missing.
But “Ain’t No Crying the Blues (In the Memory of Howlin’ Wolf),” Taylor’s new version of this musical biography, now takes the form of a memory play. And it includes all the torments and successes of Wolf’s life (he was born Chester Arthur Burnett in Mississippi in 1910, and died in Hines, Ill., in 1976), beamed from “the other side,” with Wolf’s loyal band, seated center stage, offering moral and musical support.
The serviceable script gives us the essentials. There is the painful childhood with a cruel mother who throws him out of the house as a kid, and rejects him until the bitter end “for singing the devil’s music” (a riveting turn by Cynthia F. Carter, who later shifts characters to sing a rousing “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Sit on It”); the whip-wielding uncle who makes him labor in the fields; the father he finally meets at 13, who gives him love and a family. There is the coaching by Delta bluesman Charley Patton; the three unhappy years in the Army; his discovery by Sam Phillips; and his move to Chicago in 1953 to record for Chess Records, where he had a contentious relationship with Leonard Chess.
Most crucially, we watch as Wolf, whose wild stage presence belied his clean living and innate sense of making and keeping money, pursues Lillie (lovely, understated Kylah Williams), the calm, educated woman he adored and married. We follow his relationship with Hubert Sumlin (Rashawn Thompson), his guitarist and surrogate son. And we witness his enduring rivalry with that other blues great, Muddy Waters (Dwight Neal), which climaxes in a smack-down as Wolf sings “Back Door Man” and Waters sings “Mannish Boy.”
The ensemble (Claudia Cunningham, Cecil Jones, Theo Huff, Danielle Davis, Michael Reckling, Mark Hood, Lyle Miller and Raymond Wise, a terrific dancer), adds great zest. The sensational band, led by music director and drummer Robert Reddrick, with Tracey Anita Baker (bass), Herb Walker and Oscar Brown Jr. (guitars), and Mark Moultrup (keyboards), is worth the price of admission all by itself.
NOTE: Roberta Flack is slated to headline the Black Ensemble’s Oct. 18 gala at the Chicago Hilton.