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Black Ensemble’s ‘Curtis Mayfield’ tale more than ‘all-right’

‘It’s All-Right To Have A Good Time: The Story of
Curtis Mayfield’

Recommended

When: Open run

Where: Black Ensemble
Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark

Tickets : $55-$65

Info: (773) 769-4451;
blackensembletheater.com

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, one intermission

Updated: September 26, 2013 6:02PM



Jackie Taylor’s newest Black Ensemble Theater production, “It’s All-Right to Have a Good Time: The Story of Curtis Mayfield,” is a memory play.

We sense this from the start as our very first encounter with Mayfield — the Chicago-bred singer/songwriter/record producer whose soulful funk sound, iconic film scores (including “Super Fly”), and political/spiritual messages permeated the airwaves from the 1960s through the 1990s — finds him laid out on a cantilevered bed.

Paralyzed from the neck down, and speaking in a deliberate way that suggests how difficult even breathing has become, he tells us how he unexpectedly rediscovered his ability to sing. Only much later are we reminded of the freak 1990 accident that, at the age of just 48, left him unable to move.

The can-do spirit and almost preternatural optimism of the man, who recorded albums almost until his death in 1999, is palpable. And as the story flashes back to the early years of his career you sense these qualities, plus an impressive pragmatism, were always part of his nature.

Taylor’s show, which marks a return to her familiar storytelling mode after several bold, hugely enjoyable new approaches, works well for the Mayfield bio which, in addition to its many Chicago connections, deals with the music itself, the often thorny business of music and the world at large. Listen to Mayfield talk about violence in the black community (like Taylor, he grew up in the Cabrini-Green projects, but before the influx of guns and drugs), and you can only wonder what songs he might write now.

Directed in collaboration with Daryl Brooks, and featuring the altogether dazzling sound of a seven-piece onstage band led by music director, drummer and arranger Robert Reddrick, the show features both a youthful Mayfield (Cecil Jones) and a bed-ridden one (Reginald E. Torian Sr.), in an altogether convincing pairing. Also in dual portrayals is Mayfield’s boyhood pal and co-creator, Jerry Butler (played as a young man by Lawrence Williams and as an older man by David Simmons, both most engaging).

We follow Mayfield’s early years as part of The Roosters and The Impressions. We hear about his church-singing mom (the power-voiced Ereatha Star McCullough), his self-taught guitar-playing, his shopping bag “file cabinets” filled with ideas. We listen to his concerns about scoring “blaxploitation movies.” We hear about his several wives and many children. And we hear the results of his collaboration with Aretha Franklin, with sensational singing by Alanna Taylor in “Something He Can Feel.”

The cast of 14 is, as always, packed with vocal talent and personality, and includes a fine dance sequence by Rueben Echoles inspired by “Super Fly.” The script has several sluggish scene transitions, and could use a bit of a trim. But all in all this show is an exceptionally “good time.”

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic



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