Teaching "The Black Renaissance" @ Black Ensemble Theater

2 stars out of 4

The Black Renaissance (A Musical Resistance Against Racism) has admirable aspirations: to expose the roots of our systemically racist society, teach us about the history of racism, and ask how we can move forward. These are absolutely timely and necessary conversations to have, as a projected photo of our current president in the opening scene reminds us. While being unapologetically black on a stage shouldn’t have to be a political act, the world we live in dictates otherwise and the Black Ensemble Theater raises its collective voice in response.

The Black Renaissance is a two-act original musical by Jackie Taylor, and there are some shining musical moments. Soloists Dwight Neal and Rhonda Preston bring down the house with their superb vocals. “Pull It Out by the Root” is a visceral call to action. And it’s a treat to have live musicians pumping up the crowd from above. The delightful theater space inverts the pit orchestra and places the band on a side balcony.

However, as much as I wanted to love The Black Renaissance, I was distracted by its uneven execution, stilted blocking, and Powerpoint-delivering tone. The whole piece felt like a Social Studies lesson that would be more appropriate for a high school audience. (Best example: a series of dictionary definitions of all the different -isms in our society are projected onto a screen, with actors reading the definitions out loud.) The educational style stands in the way of the musical itself by making it suffer sometimes-awkward lyrics; “oppression was instituted” and “legal subjugation” are important lecture topics, but hardly catchy lines you’ll be humming on your way out. Overuse of reverb effects hide singer’s natural voices, and overuse of the ensemble collectively delivering lines leave us with no real characters to relate to. Furthermore, after a wonderfully choreographed dance scene accompanying an enslaved couple’s wedding on the plantation (Linnea Norwood and Lemond A. Hayes stand out as beautiful dancers), the rest of the show’s minimalist show-choir choreography leaves much to be desired.

Racism, as the show points out, tears our society apart. For such a controversial issue, the show plays it safe artistically, never really pushing the audience very far outside their comfort zone. Near the end of the show, we are all encouraged to exchange cries of  “tear down the walls!” with our neighbors-- a lovely moment of interaction and literal wall-breaking. I only wish The Black Renaissance had more moments like that to feed its laudable purpose.

The Black Renaissance is now playing through November 19 at The Black Ensemble Theater (4450 N. Clark). Please call 773.769.4451 or visit www.blackensemble.org for tickets and further information.