Review: Black Ensemble Theater’s Jubilant Grandma’s Jukebox Is a Return Home

I have been following Jackie Taylor’s Black Ensemble Theater (BET) since their days on Beacon and then to the beautiful new home on Clark. Unlike the old days on Beacon, the A/C is much more reliable and the acoustics are on point. The latest production is Grandma’s Jukebox, and like many BET productions before it is a rousing music-filled and unapologetically Black story. When I was growing up, it was a custom in Black households for the kids to put on a show for the adults at cookouts, family gatherings, and of course, in any talent show at church or school. Everybody had to dance, sing, or in my case—”say a little piece for the people, Katherine.” Grandma’s Jukebox is the story of a group of cousins all taken in by Grandma B and how she reaches out from beyond through a mystical jukebox that is not plugged in.

Writer and director Michelle Reneé Bester continues the tradition of Jackie Taylor and Tyler Perry in telling stories of Black families with music, comedy, and a solid moral for everyone to take to heart. The play opens with a family cleaning up after the repast for Grandma B. Jessica (Jessica Seals) is singing “All is Well With My Soul” and the other cousins join in with gospel-tinged harmony. Seals plays the oldest cousin and gives a realistic portrayal of a woman who is trapped in a marriage to a man that no one in her family likes. Jessica is bossy and controlling because her family is the only place she feels that she has power. Christopher (Vincent Jordan) is a former felon who is determined to do something better with his life as instructed by Grandma B. The character of Mikey (Blake Reasoner) was taken in and rescued from an abusive home when his father nearly beat him to death. Reasoner gives a heart-rending soliloquy when Jessica taunts him and calls him Michael. He tells the story of abuse and how he never wants to carry that man’s name. His life changed when Grandma B took him in. Grandma encouraged his dreams of being a storyteller.

Aeriel Williams. Photo by Alan Davis.

Parker (Aeriel Williams) is the youngest cousin who feels drowned out and unseen by the other cousins. Williams gives the most nuanced performance huddled under a blanket that still smells like Grandma. Parker is gutted by losing the only person who ever really listened to her and who raised her from the age of 3 when her parents were killed in an accident. Williams makes Parker’s grief palpable as she struggles to speak and get a word in edgewise. Jeff Wright portrays Richard who was looked after and encouraged by Grandma. He considers himself an extension of the family and is hilarious as he preaches and gives praise in Black church style. Wright has great comic skills and gives Richard sincerity, as he was influenced by Grandma’s spirituality. Richard became a lawyer who has to give the cousins their inheritance after they do four sessions of mediation to resolve their issues and come together as a united family.

This is a jukebox musical with wonderful music from the ’50s through more recent times. The songs tell the stories as much as the actors do. Everyone in the cast has a gorgeous voice, which is a hallmark of any BET production. Bester directs the transitions from dialogue to music really well. The set by Bek Lambrecht is reminiscent of any Black grandmother. The set looks lived in and comfortable—how I felt at my granny’s house minus the magical jukebox. Music is a centerpiece in Grandma’s Jukebox and the BET house band, led by Oscar Brown Jr., rocks the house every time. Musical director Robert Reddrick curates a perfect soundtrack for the story.

Jessica Seals and Blake Reasoner. Photo by Alan Davis.

Jackie Taylor has made BET more than a theater. It is an incubator for Black playwrights and directors with a mission of eradicating racism by telling stories that make everyone a part of the human fabric. Grandma’s Jukebox is funny, touching, and uplifting. It is a love letter to Michelle Reneé Bester’s real grandma and I definitely recommend it.

Grandma’s Jukebox runs through June 26, at Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets are $55 and because of Covid and social distancing, not as plentiful. The mainstage show runs 90 minutes without intermission. No food or drinks is served at the concessions. Masks are mandatory while you are in the theater building and please wear them over both your nose and mouth. We need theater now more than ever—keep the actors, the audience, and yourself protected.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.