Still basking in its thirtieth anniversary season, the Black Ensemble Theater is thriving more strongly than ever, having just launched a twenty million dollar campaign for its new Clark Street state-of-the-art theater and cultural center scheduled to begin construction in 2008. And just when you thought that founder and artistic director Jackie Taylor might take a breath, she is back directing and producing the company’s world premiere of “Memphis Soul (The Story of Stax Records),” written by David Barr III. Stax was to the South what Motown was to the North, a mecca and magnet for top African-American talent during its fifteen-year existence (1960-1975). Founded by white country fiddler Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, “Stax” combined the first two letters of both of their last names and the label created the “Stax sound,” gritty, raw Southern-steeped soul that was R&B and rock-friendly and which included the likes of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes and the Chicago-based Staple Singers, among others, and which was responsible for 167 Billboard Hot 100 hit songs. Most of the label’s top artists and hits are recreated with considerable authenticity as part of a fictitious 1980 twentieth anniversary concert, although Otis Redding, killed in a 1967 Wisconsin plane crash, is represented via “Black Moses” Isaac Hayes (former House of Blues featured singer Dwayne Lonzo), who not only penned many of the label’s hits for others, but who scored a coup for the label with an Academy Award for his theme from “Shaft,” which climaxes the show complete with full choreography. Such contagiously energetic moments as this and Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” more than compensate for lower moments in the Stax legacy that are represented, such as an audience participation rendition of Rufas Thomas’—gasp—“Do the Funky Chicken.” (Dennis Polkow)
Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon, (773)769-4451. Thu 7:30pm/Fri-Sat 8pm/Sun 3pm. $40. Through May 13.