Review: Black Ensemble Theater Gives the People What They Want in The Salon

Black Ensemble Theater (BET) has been a mainstay of Black theater for almost 50 years. That takes grit which is a step above determination. It takes vision, talent, and fearlessness—the partial sum of founder Jackie Taylor. I say partially because Taylor mentors young playwrights, designers, and talented actors. The Salon is the latest BET production, written and directed by Michelle Reneé Bester. It is described as an overdue appreciation of hair, excellence, and legacy in the Black community. It is based on Bester's sister and her experience as a salon owner. The Salon is an appreciation and tribute to all three but is short on dramatic substance.

This is a jukebox musical with songs from the '60s through the Millennium. Nina Simone's "Four Women" is used as a treatise on respect for women for player Johnny (Vincent Jordan) in addition to a clumsy mashup of "Respect" and "Chain of Fools." One would have sufficed as a rebuke. Otherwise, it is a good mix of soul, disco, and hip-hop including Sylvester, Mary J. Blige, and Beyonce. The plot has potential but needs to be fleshed out. It is set up like an old-school movie musical or MTV video story where people burst into a song with an alternative or double-entendre meaning.

Cynthia Carter and Vincent Jordan, front, with ensemble. Photo by Darin Gladfelter.

Mama T (Cynthia Carter) has worked at her sister Bernadette's salon for 40 years. The staff is more like family with Mama T as the matriarch. Johnny is a tomcat with women slashing his tires and breaking his windshield. Monique (De'Jah Jervai) is navigating her career in beauty and a shallow dating pool full of married men and other cads. Young MJ (a great Jared Brown) has found stability at Bernadette's after cycling through the foster system. Mr. Hustle (a hilarious Dennis Dent) is that guy on the El selling tube socks, fruit, jewelry, and a cup of "the good ice" from Sonic. Bernadette retires and sells the salon to Marie (Rose Marie Simmons). Marie recruits nonbinary Erin (Makenzy Jenkins) to up the quality and creativity to create competition and rev up everyone's game.

Customers come and go. Mama T's son Jacob (Jaitee Thomas) stops in to check on his mother. She is so proud of how he has turned out, raised by a single mother, and fears for his life on the streets of Chicago. There is an unseen character named Big Bertha. "She" is the boiler that makes the noise I imagine would come from Grendel in Beowulf. The boiler breaks and panic ensues. Where will Marie get the money? What will happen to the longtime staff, especially MJ? The answers are predictable but I think that is what people enjoy so much about BET plays. It is like getting the reveal of a soap opera before any of your friends and being the one to say "I told you it was one of Vicki's ten personalities!"

I have seen several of the cast members in other productions including Cynthia Carter (Mama T) and Vincent Jordan (Johnny) in The Other Cinderella, and Carter in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. They are both great singers and excel at drama and comedy. They got short-changed in this play with scant backstory and rather stock characters in Black theater. Carter can steal the show with her voice and acting chops. She can do pathos or broad comedy and has a great theater face. Jordan is on the verge of a big breakout with his comedic timing, killer voice range, and an edge of menace when warranted. The singers in any BET production can tear the roof off. The house band can rock the tunes and keep the audience dancing in their seats.

I expected more plot development. How is it that Marie's mother is not a character in the show and is only interpreted in one-sided phone calls that make Marie frustrated? What more is there to Jacob than dropping in and possibly beating the odds for a Black man in Chicago? How is it that Mr. Hustle is boosting hair products to add to his inventory and is believable as a Fortune 500 entrepreneur who lost his fortune on bad investments? The audience is asked to suspend belief when there is no real substance to these characters.

Rose Marie Simmons and ensemble. Photo by Darin Gladfelter.

I did enjoy the music and the spectacle of the hair show contest. Costume designer Evelyn Danner created some spectacular hairstyles. I would recommend it for the scaffolding hair possibly inspired by Dr. Seuss. The Harriet Tubman sequence felt out of left field but the music carried it. Going back to the playwright's desire to present Black hair and excellence as a legacy, I think the script needs to lean into the actors and trust that they can carry more substantive dialogue. Just because an actor is Black and singing songs by Black artists does not convey all the nuances of a legacy of excellence.

I recommend The Salon with the caveat that you do not expect a backstory or depth to the characters. You will hear some fantastic music, great "dusties" (old vinyl), see fantasy hair, and slick choreography from Reneisha Jenkins. It's a nice way to spend 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.

The Salon runs through July 28 at the Black Ensemble Arts Center, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets are $56.50-$66.50 (fees included) for performances Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit BlackEnsemble.org.

For more information on this and other plays, see 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.