Black Ensemble Theater continues their “Season of Excellence: Rejuvenation” with “Taste of Soul,” a musical tribute to the prolific artists of soul music, but also rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and blues. Writer and director Daryl D. Brooks arranges the lineup to demonstrate the evolution of Black music from its rural and spiritual roots to its current pop music status, presented alongside histories of each artist.
The performance is set in a fantastic kitchen, with chrome carts full of pots, pans and spices, and a gigantic oven that pulls down into a small platform. Traditional soul food is used as a metaphor for the artists—the O’Jays equal macaroni and cheese, The Isley Brothers equal gumbo. Food puns abound: “Add some salt, pepper, garlic and Al.” “What’s Al?” “Al Green, of course!” We’re even given recipe tips, like adding a pinch of sugar while cooking greens, which elicited both supportive and skeptical responses from the crowd.
The format is presented like those Home Shopping Network specials where they would sell sets of themed music compilations—that’s not a dig, as many of us (me included) have ordered these packages because of the programs’ slick production value and entertaining hosts.
Speaking of hosts: The show is carried by Head Chef Qiana (Qiana McNary), who breaks character to deliver powerful versions of Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood” and Patti LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” as well as Head Chef Ricky (Thee Ricky Harris), whose cheerful personality brightens the stage as much as the lights from overhead, and who opens the show with his own versions of the hymn “I Know It Was the Blood,” blues hit “How Blue Can You Get” and “Tutti Frutti,” written by Little Richard and Dorothy LaBostrie.
The talented cast pulls off accurate representations of the vocal stylings of the artists they portray. Caitlin Dobbins as Valerie Simpson (of Ashford and Simpson) singing “Solid” and Trequon Tate as one of the artists of Friends of Distinction singing “Going In Circles” had everyone swaying to these R&B classics.
LaRon Jones’ deep baritone had the women in the front row swooning during his renditions of Barry White’s “My First, My Last, My Everything” and “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.”
Love was in the air as Vincent Jordan sang a near-pitch-perfect version of Al Green’s “Cupid.”
Some tongue-in-cheek joking prepared the audience for Spencer Milford, the only white performer, as Simply Red (“Holding Back The Years,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”) and Bobby Caldwell (“What You Won’t Do For Love”). “Did you know he was a white boy?” jokes the host. Since childhood I had assumed both artists were Black, so this came as a surprise to me, too!
Percy Nesbary surprises everyone with his embodiment of George Benson during “Give Me the Night,” playing legato riffs on the guitar while dancing and singing.
Makenzy Jenkins faithfully produces Al Green’s signature tenor during “Let’s Stay Together” and “Love and Happiness.”
Britt Edwards brought the house down as Tina Turner. Edwards nails every note of “River Deep” and “Simply the Best” while faithfully reproducing Turner’s signature dance moves and scowl. Edwards was simply the best, as evidenced by an encore of applause and shouting which left the hosts no option but to throw their hands up and wait it out.
My only quibbles with the performance would be the quality of the vocal audio, which gets fuzzy when the singers let loose; but this only applies to the vocal mix, as the live band seated atop the action rang out clear as a bell.
Notable is the confrontation of the good and the bad of each artists’ histories. Unlike the recipe for greens, these biographies are not sugar-coated. Brooks tackles Al Green’s problems with money and violence and Barry White’s smoking addiction and diabetes that lead to his early death due to kidney failure. Brooks’ presentation of these monolithic artists as not gods but fallible humans is appreciably down-to-earth.
Like a good cookout, “Taste of Soul” has a little something for everyone. For those who grew up with soul food and music, it’s a delightful trip down memory lane. For people uninitiated in Black music, food and culture, the show is a valuable crash course.
The only thing not allowed at “Taste of Soul” is to not have fun. Coming with low energy would be like bringing a store-bought pie to the cookout, so prepare to get on your feet while enjoying some of the best music ever made.
“Taste of Soul” runs through October 15 at Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark. Tickets are $56.50-$66.50 and can be purchased at blackensemble.org.