How ironic that in a season “dedicated to men, ” as Black Ensemble Theater founder and resident playwright and producer Jackie Taylor puts it, that the real star of her latest black music bio-play is a woman, Ida Pendergrass. As multi-Platinum selling singer Teddy Pendergrass lay in a hospital bed after a 1982 car accident that left him paralyzed from mid-chest down, it was his mother who refused to accept the bleak prognosis that he would live for a year at the most in that condition. Twenty-six years later, this is the story of “A Mother’s Love,” as the powerful new song—one of three new songs penned by Pendergrass himself and Billy Jolly—tells us, and given a take-no-prisoners rendition by Rhonda Preston, who also leads a virtual revival meeting with the new song “This Far by Faith.” These are remarkable moments and alone are worth seeing the show. Ironically, despite the presence of a young Teddy (Rashawn Thompson) singing his early Blue Notes hits and a mature Teddy (Kevin McIlvaine) to sing the solo stuff and give us insights of a post-paralyzed Pendergrass complete with what has become his trademark motorized wheelchair, we learn little about Pendergrass himself. Yes, we get the life-affirming message that he is who he is despite his handicap, and that life is not about “being knocked down, but getting back up.” But it’s hard to reconcile the flirting, womanizing and worldly pre-accident Pendergrass that is portrayed in the show with the immensely spiritual and selfless Pendergrass that we know now and who even attended the show’s opening and gave a touching oral ovation at show’s end. What made for this transition? What specific journey did Pendergrass have to make to go from the verge of suicide to an unabashed lover of life, despite the immense hell that he obviously went through after his accident? “Read the book,” his character says, “if you want to know.” If future incarnations of this play were to explore Pendergrass as deeply as it already does his mother, that would be some show. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon, (773)769-4451. Fri-Sat 8pm/Sun 3pm. $40-$45. Through Jul 27.