Review: Black Ensemble Theater Celebrates 47 Years of The Other Cinderella
I cannot believe that 47 years have passed since the premiere performance of The Other Cinderella. Jackie Taylor came out of Cabrini Green and has emerged as a Chicago legend. Part of the mission of Black Ensemble Theater (BET) is to eradicate racism. Taylor is doing her part by creating plays about the icons of Black musical history like Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. She has also rewritten theater rules by allowing Black people to see themselves in roles traditionally filled by white actors. The Other Cinderella has become another holiday tradition with the music written by Taylor and Michael Philip Ward. Taylor also directs this musical extravaganza featuring some of the finest musical actors.
The story takes place in the Kingdon of Other, which is adjacent to the 'hood. King Harry (Vincent Jordan) has arranged a lottery to hire a new page for the castle. The new Page (Brandon Lewis) wins, much to the joy of his friends PeeWee (Blake Reasoner) and Groundhog (Issac Ray). Lewis adds some flavor to his portrayal of an outsider in the stuffiness of the palace. Blake Reasoner and Vincent Jordan were featured in Grandma’s Jukebox in the 2022 BET season. Like all of the cast, they possess beautiful and soulful voices.
The King wants his son Prince Charles (RJ Griffith) to stop being such a sensitive and quiet young man and find a wife. There are whispers in the kingdom about his friendship with the Duke's son (Makenzy Jenkins), who is openly and fabulously gay. I know that Black churches wouldn't have a decent choir if it wasn't for gay men in particular, but the Black community still has some disdain for LGBTQ persons. Queen Mildred (Qiana C. McNary) is welcoming to the Duke's son and does not fret about the rumors. Jordan and McNary have good chemistry as the King and Queen. They are portrayed as very much in love and demonstrative with affection.
Griffith does a fine job as the Prince wanting to be his own man and to find his wife in his own time. His voice is really good but he needs to project a bit more or sing toward the audience. Some of the ballad "Soon Enough" got lost but he does a stellar job with Cinderella (Miciah Lathan) for the duet "Who I Am." Speaking of Lathan, what a standout performance! I covered The Other Cinderella a few years back when BET was still on Beacon Street and did not feel the power from the other actor as I did from Lathan. Her Cinderella is not a victim but a determined and proud young woman who withstands the abusive Stepmama ( Cynthia F. Carter) with her ratchet daughters Margarite (Brittney Edwards) and Geneva (Michelle Renée Bester).
I last saw Carter in Women of Soul as Big Mama Thornton. She adds a wicked flair to "What's Fair is Fair" as a rebuttal to Cinderella telling her that she does not treat her well. The song has been changed from the original where Stepmama lamented that since Cinderella's father took off she was on the prowl for someone to "ring my bell." Carter is funny as she tries her hand to land some time with the Prince at the ball. Edwards and Bester are awesome as the stepsisters. They are a great comic duo, playing the sisters as oblivious to how tacky they are. Their duet "Wash Them Walls" is one of my favorite songs from this show. Edwards and Bester relish the outrageous attire and ridiculous vanity. The gold tooth on Edwards is the cherry on the cake.
The Other Cinderella addresses other issues in the Black community that are relics from the plantation days such as colorism and thinking that one is better because they left the 'hood. The Attendant (Dennis Dent) and Lady in Waiting (Caitlin Dobbins) have a crush on each other but Lady in Waiting says that no one would approve of their romance because she is light-skinned and he is dark. They agree to see beyond the differences of an old social construct and sing "Look at Me" before a passionate kiss. Groundhog and PeeWee confront Page and he convinces them that he is the same as he always was and wants to still be best friends.
Dorothy from Kansas (Colleen Virginia Perry) makes a cameo and sings "The White Girl Blues." Perry has great pipes and played Janis Joplin in Women of Soul. The song is more of a straightforward blues whereas previously it was a lament about the strange characters and tribulations in Oz. I found the tests for Dorothy to enter the Kingdom of Other a bit contrived such as identifying the greens most popular with Black folks because white people only eat kale.
Taylor has updated the play to reflect the changing times and women's empowerment, social growth, and tearing down persistent divisions. Even though Cinderella gets the Prince, it doesn't mean that she couldn't make it on her own. The Kingdom of Other even manages to welcome the Duke's Son in a resplendent pink tuxedo. The Fairy Godmama (Melanie McCullough) reinforces Cinderella's inner strength and tells her to stop focusing on what she can't do. McCullough is magical in the role with a delightful Caribbean accent and the song "You Make the Wish." She sends Cinderella to the ball in a gorgeous brocade gown and her beautiful natural hair flowing.
Speaking of fashion, costume designer Evelyn Danner dresses the cast in exquisite attire. Beautiful and flowing tunics with beading and embroidery for Queen Mildred and sharply tailored asymmetrical jackets with Nehru-style collars for the King and Prince Harry. Stepmama and her daughters were a sight in ballgowns decorated with maribou, feathers, dangling attachments, and wild platform shoes. Every BET production is immaculately costumed on a par with a Broadway show. The audience can count on great music from the house band directed by Robert Reddick, with Adam Sherrod, Myron Cherry, Oscar Brown Jr., and Charles DuBose. The Other Cinderella is a feast for the senses and great entertainment. I highly recommend this show as a great holiday outing for the entire family.
The Other Cinderella runs through January 14 at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St. For tickets and more information, please visit www.blackensemble.org.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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