The Black Ensemble Theater has a new musical story on stage, a tribute to the late great guitarist Chuck Berry, who died a year ago. Hail Hail Chuck: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, written by L. Maceo Ferris, a member of the theater’s Black Playwrights Initiative, makes use of the infectious music written and performed by the St. Louis native. The production tells the story of Berry’s life, glossing over some of the rougher spots, and plays abbreviated versions of his greatest songs and other music of the era.
The music is performed by a band above the stage (see more below) rather than by the actors on stage. It’s a choice that limits the power of the music and makes you want to go home and listen to your old Chuck Berry records. Or see him on YouTube here and here (duck walk included).
Young Chuck is played by Vincent Jordan, who joined the cast recently, and older Chuck is played by Lyle Miller. Johnny Johnson, his piano player colleague, is played by Rueben D. Echoles and by Kelvin Davis as older Johnny. Muddy Waters is played by Dwight Neal.
Berry was the son of a preacher and became interested in pop music at an early age. His father wanted him to give up his guitar and play church music. But young Chuck had discovered “hillbilly music” and veered into what became rock and roll. At a time when he’s trying to escape his family environment, Berry and two teenage friends are arrested for armed robbery and spend several years in a reformatory. He improves his guitar skills playing in a prison band and continues playing when he is released.
Free again, he plays in a St. Louis club and meets his future wife, Themetta (Kylah Williams); they were married for 68 years. He joins the band led by pianist Johnny Johnson, who becomes his longtime collaborator in performance and songwriting. (One of the contentious segments in act two is Johnson’s claim that Berry didn’t give him credit for his songwriting contributions.)
Johnson has a contact with Muddy Waters and he and Berry go to Chicago, where Muddy introduces them to Leonard Chess (Jeff Wright) of Chess Records. Chess is immediately impressed by Berry’s performance and songwriting skills. Chess made its money and reputation on black blues music, but Berry brings something new: the energy and beat of rock and roll. If Chuck Berry didn’t truly invent rock and roll, he put all the pieces together and Leonard Chess got it to its new audience: White teenagers as well as the black fans of what had been called race music.
Chess records Berry’s “Maybellene” with “You Can’t Catch Me” on the B side in 1955 and Berry’s career explodes. “Maybellene” hits #1 on the R&B chart and #5 on the pop music chart, a sign it’s in the (white) mainstream. The rest is music history. Berry records many more hits—“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Rock and Roll Music” are among the songs played in Hail Hail Chuck. His career had some ups and downs but he was in the first class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Like most musicians of that era, especially black ones, Berry was not treated well financially by the managers and producers who became wealthy from his music. And Berry and his bandmates suffered the Jim Crow laws of the south when they toured and the somewhat more subtle racism of the north.
The performers in Hail Hail Chuck all perform well as singers and actors. They have the voices and the moves (even the famous Chuck Berry duck walk) but none of them are musicians. They all carry guitars but they’re not playing them or even trying to look like they are playing their guitars. This is a real flaw in a play about Chuck Berry, who is listed in 7th place on Rolling Stones’ list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. In addition, the sound mixing seemed off. The guitars—the most important sound—should have been stronger and more forward.
As with most of their productions, the Black Theater Ensemble has a live band above the stage and they do yeoman work, led by Robert Reddrick on drums. Adam Sherrod is on keys, Mark Miller on bass and Gary Baker on guitar. “Chuck’s guitar” is played by Oscar Brown.
Set design is by Bekki Lambrecht with lighting by Denise Karczewski and sound by David Samba. Alexi Rutherford created costumes.
Hail Hail Chuck: A Tribute to Chuck Berry runs two hours plus a 15-minute intermission. It continues at Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., through April 1. Tickets are $55-65 for performances Thursday-Sunday.