Theater Review: THE HEALING (formerly titled LEGENDS) (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 6, 2020

in Theater-Chicago


If it takes a village, the Black Ensemble Theater creates one nightly. Actually, it’s a “healing circle” that’s literally at center stage and figuratively at the heart of Legends the Musical: A Civil Rights Movement, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Written and directed by founder Jackie Taylor, this generous new work departs from past bio-musicals to confront today’s crises. It strikes back with love against world-wide racism and its new lease on hate.

Combining original numbers by Taylor (“Welcome to the Healing,” “The Face of Hate,” and “We Must Remember”) with resilient rousers (“Caravan of Love,” “Ball of Confusion,” and “You Got a Friend”), the 140-minute world premiere delivers musical therapy — 19 thrilling numbers — to fight the lies that kill from the 1200 hate groups that currently infest America.

With B.E.T.’s ten-member cast clad in black for remembrance, the first act combines condemnation with compassion to chronicle with video and song the many young casualties of both recent police brutality and earlier lynching: It yields a kind of wailing wall of loss and resolve.

Emmett Till is only one of many martyrs memorialized, along with slaughtered soldiers of the civil rights movements. We get testimony from Nat Turner and his 1831 slave revolt. There’s fervent criticism of religion for fomenting and institutionalizing bigotry. Taylor’s testimony delivers indictments for the passive silence that allows for atrocities. Her “Never Again” puts contemporary hate into the Holocaust’s perspective, while the sing-along to the Marley/Mayfield classic “One Love” builds a bridge from stage to seats. John Lennon’s “Imagine” does just that and “Rise Up” ends the first act with militant resolution.

The second act uses capsule commentary to detail the many significant African-American accomplishments in science and technology (to the tune of Taylor’s “The Truth Is There”). It’s incentive enough for the audience to make a pledge to use their own knowledge for enlightenment, not division. There can be solidarity in diversity, Legends asserts.

Given the peril of preaching to the converted, it’s crucial to get personal. Transgender actor MJ Rawls describes her self-liberation, then tears into a “Stand By Me” that takes on new powers. Blake Hawthorne brings a thrilling tenor to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

With leather lungs and expansive warmth, Dwight Neal and Dawn Bless are splendidly showcased as the “guides” who proclaim many second chances to rise above racism. There can be solidarity in diversity, Legends maintains. Perversely and unwittingly, haters sacrifice their precious freedom precisely because they cut themselves off from the world.

Beyond being a pep rally against prejudice or a feel-good salute to solidarity, Legends means well enough to make a difference. Sometimes it just takes a musical.

photos by Alan Davis and David Walker

Legends the Musical: A Civil Rights Movement, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center
4450 N. Clark Street
Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on April 12, 2020
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gwendolyn March 7, 2020 at 6:47 am

What is the city doing to promote BET and this play? In my opinion, this play should be seen by Jr and Sr high school students.


Tony Frankel March 7, 2020 at 9:30 am

Hi Gwendolyn!

Aside from the advertising and a notice in the Tribune, the best way to get people in is word of mouth. That would be you. Call your local schools, tell your friends, etc. Nothing works better than buzz!


Nikki Smith March 7, 2020 at 1:56 pm

I rely on your reviews, Mr. Bommer. I just bought tickets


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