Talk about making a grand entrance!
Michelle Renee Bester recently joined the Black Ensemble Theater (BET) as its newest associate director. Shoe both wrote and directed her world premiere production of “Grandma’s Jukebox,” making a terrific first impression. She also has assembled a gifted cast of five that is continually backed by a sensational band led by Oscar Brown, Jr. and cleverly laced the show with powerful renderings of 14 songs initially popularized by the likes of Boyz II Men, Michael Jackson, Nina Simone, Tina Turner, Sly and the Family Stone and others - and cleverly laced with powerful renderings of 14 songs initially popularized by the likes of Boyz II Men, Michael Jackson, Nina Simone, Tina Turner, Sly and the Family Stone and others.
Bester’s 90-minute show is a quasi-autobiographical story that pays homage to her late grandmother. It spins an intriguing psychological family drama that homes in on the particular fears, frustrations and needs of each of that woman’s four rather different and troubled grandchildren. As for the periodic outbursts from the somewhat haunted jukebox that has long held a place in their grandmother’s living room, let’s just say it has a life all its own.
But back to reality. Each of the four siblings, whose mother is deceased and whose father is far from engaged with them, have at many times found solace in the home of their recently deceased grandmother. And they have now been gathered to hear her lawyer, Richard (J. Michael Wright), who also serves as something of a therapist and preacher, read aloud the four letters she had prepared for each of them before fully revealing what was in her will. Most crucially she wanted to remind them that family is what matters above all else.
Jessica (Jessica Brooke Seals) is the oldest of the four and was not attentive to her grandmother as she was dying. She is locked in an unhappy marriage she lacks the resources to leave. Chris (Vincent Jordan), has done prison time, and is now finding it very difficult to get a job and the funding he wants in order to start a non-profit organization.
Parker (Aeriel Williams) is the younger sister with an amazing voice who has a special affection for her grandmother’s jukebox. And Mikey (Blake Reasoner) is the musician with a comic edge who suffered from a terrible relationship with his father.
According to Richard, all four grandchildren must attend three sessions of “mediation” in their grandmother’s living room before her will is fully revealed. Along the way they open up about their life struggles and dreams by singing classic pop songs that are variously performed as solos and group numbers. And along the way, in this house with its comfortable living room (by set designer Bek Lambrecht) they are reminded of the warmth and wisdom of their grandmother whose greatest bequest is to remind them that the house must be “a place of safety, love and solace.”
The uniformly clarion voices of the siblings ring out with great beauty and help define their various histories and personalities with a good bit of coaching from the lawyer. And while their many and varied problems are far from being immediately solved, their grandmother clearly has done all she possibly could to help them move on. And, to borrow a song title, she assures them, as best she can, that things are “Gonna Be Alright.”
Bester’s deft direction, along with BET veteran Robert Reddrick’s music direction are impeccable. So is the topnotch work of band leader and guitarist Brown, Adam Sherrod (keys), Mark Miller (bass), and Myron Cherry (drums), all four of whom are perched on a platform high above the stage in this spirit-raising show.
“Grandma’s Jukebox” runs through June 26 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. For tickets visit blackensemble.org or call (773) 769-4451. And note: As a COVID-19-inspired safety precaution, BET will sell just 150 of its 300 seats at each of its remaining performances this year.
Meanwhile, Jackie Taylor, the company’s indomitable founder and artistic director, has announced two additional, richly music-laced shows that will be coming up in its 2022 “Season of Healing and Joy.”
First is “My Brother Langston,” written and directed by Rueben Echoles (running Aug. 13 - Sept. 18), in which Langston Hughes, the great Harlem Renaissance poet, invites some of the great legends of the time to his apartment.
It will be followed by “Blue Heaven,” written and directed by Daryl Brooks (Oct. 22 - Nov. 27), which imagines a gathering of four great blues artists (Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughn) who reminisce about their careers and wait for “the new guy” (who just happens to be B.B. King) to show up before launching into a great blues concert.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic