Review: Writers Theatre Rocks With Pearl’s Rollin’ With the Blues: A Night with Felicia P. Fields
The Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues, but Chicago is the proving ground. Just a jump north of Chicago the Writers Theatre closes out its 2021/22 season by rocking the house with Pearl's Rollin' with the Blues: A Night with Felicia P. Fields. Fields is a Chicago favorite with husky contralto that is at turns sly, sexy, and fraught with anguish—but that is the blues. The performance is directed by Ron OJ Parson who directed the excellent Relentless for Timeline. Parson is a seasoned master of August Wilson plays including Ma Rainey's Black Bottom starring Fields. The band is Chic Street Man on guitars, Ricardo Jiminez on horn and harp, Frank Menzies on keyboard, Harol Morrison on drums, and Julie Poncé on acoustic bass.
The stage is set up runway style surrounded by little cabaret tables. Scenic designer Jack Magaw's stage design is reminiscent of the Flip Wilson Show back in the '70s. At the center is a scalloped shell behind the band. Chic Street Man sets it off with Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle." That is the jam to get any party started and was a staple at rent parties back in the day. The scalloped shell parts, and Pearl (Fields' alter ego) emerges wearing a gossamer cape and a shimmering gown in a sequined fish scale pattern. Her costumes are by the incomparable Rueben Echoles, known for adding some serious glamor to Black Ensemble Theater shows. Fields is a vision dancing through the fog effect. One of the band members removes the cape and Fields tears into the song. Her version is not as raw as Koko Taylor but Fields has the stage presence to give that song the punch to make it rock.
The first part of the show contains some earlier Blues songs such as the suggestive "My Stoves's in Good Condition (Stick a Match Right in the Hole," "Rough and Ready Man" and "Mojo Hand." These are songs that recall the juke joints in the bayous and deep woods of the South. The sweat and emotion can be felt through the lyrics and magnified by the audience clapping and stomping. Chic Street Man wove in some more mellow songs and explained how the slide effect developed in Blues guitar playing. The neck of a broken bottle fits on a finger and adds a wail to the sound as it slides up the neck of the guitar. Take a listen to some early blues with that slide sound. It can sound like a moan or a lonely train whistle.
Blues music evolved directly from Gospel music. The call and response pattern and as Pearl explained—a lot of the moaning choruses in the Black church are the foundation of a Blues sound. She recalled her grandmother starting it on Sunday mornings as a lead in to feeling the spirit. I recall the deacons at the front of my grandmother's church leading a similar moan with "yes lord" and other exclamations resonating through the church. It was right before the second collection was taken for the minister. She recounted some painful racist incidents from the past and then sang the beautiful "Skin Deep" moving on to "Lord I Tried."
It was a joyous night and an excellent way to spend a summer evening. I found it more sedate than the blues I grew up listening to. There is not a chance that Pearl's wig is going to move precariously forward like Koko Taylor singing anything. This is not gutbucket blues with sawdust on the floor. It is highly unlikely that a bottle will fly past your head for the guitar player to make an impromptu slider. There is a highly likely chance that Pearl's Rollin' with the Blues will be a good time with a jamming band and Fields' Pearl at the center of it all. I highly recommend that you go and get your mojo working.
Pearl's Rollin with the Blues: A Night with Felicia P. Fields runs 90 minutes with no intermission. The production runs Wednesdays through Sundays through July 24 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe. Tickets are $35-$90. Patrons are required to wear a mask in the theater for the safety of the performers, the audience, and yourself. For more information, please visit www.writerstheatre.org
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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