Black Ensemble

There is something mysterious and fascinating, but also a little scary, about actors who impersonate celebrities. It’s as if, by imitating these famous people, actors were satisfying not only the audience’s desire to see remarkable imitations of life but also something deeper–a semireligious need to see, hear, and maybe even touch a celebrity or, barring that, the celebrity’s incarnation in the impersonator.

Of course no one seriously believes–or wants to be caught believing–that media celebrities and stars are the gods and demigods of an as yet unnamed national religion. Still, it has been common since the 20s to say that movie stars are part of some vague pantheon, and every glib writer on the celebrity beat has at one time or another referred to this or that media star as a god or goddess. Then there are the ideas attributed to Elvis impersonator Jay Elvis, who is said to believe that Elvis impersonators are Elvies angels–intermediaries of sorts, connecting those of us on earth with the King in heaven.

In I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine, Idris Ackamoor and Rhodessa Jones are the angels of Ike and Tina Turner–who, though they’re not dead, travel in such different circles from the rest of us that they might as well be. Of course, because Ike and Tina are still very much alive, Ed Bulfins’s play (written with the help of Ackamoor, Jones, and director Brian Freeman) deals instead with a fictional R & B couple, Prince and Rita, whose life story sounds remarkably like the Turners’. (If the story doesn’t tip you off, the shows title should: Ike and Tina Turner recorded a song called “Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” on Sue Records in the 60s.)

Like Ike and Tina, Prince and Rita meet in a club in East Saint Louis where Prince is already something of a local legend. Prince, like Ike, is a bit of a rogue male, and Rita, like Tina, is something of a country girl only recently transplanted to the city. Rita turns out to have some raw talent, which Prince helps foster. Rita, in turn, becomes Prince’s ticket to the big time. Unfortunately Prince has dangerous predilections for chemical abuse and violent behavior, which eventually undermine both the act and his relationship with Rita. Finally one day Rita can’t take Prince’s abuse anymore and so . . . well, I don’t really need to go on, do I? We all have a pretty good idea of how it turns out.

Besides, the story doesn’t really matter as much as the performers–both of whom are good enough to pass, at least part of the time, as the Turners made flesh. Like Tina, Jones really knows how to wear big crazy wigs, and Ackamoor has mastered Ike’s mean strut and flashes of ugly temper. Still, the two are not entirely convincing as Ike and Tina. For one thing, Jones’s grin is more joyful and carefree–even when she’s been forced to leave Prince and strike out on her own–than Tina’s alternately careworn and knowing smiles. For another, Ackamoor’s menace always seems a little forced, as if he were just a little too nice in life to play as mean a character as the just plain scary Ike Turner. Jones and Ackamoor play off each other well, however, both as singers and actors. It’s a good thing, too, since this is a two-person show.

Jones really knows how to sing. (She also wrote some of the songs in collaboration with Ackamoor, none of which were ever recorded by Ike or Tina.) One in particular, “That’s My Head,” was so wonderfully performed it made the back of my neck tingle. And Ackamoor’s musical performance is nothing short of remarkable, especially the way he jumps around as he plays his sax. He doesn’t just sway from side to side as he plays–he leaps and turns, runs across the stage, goes down on his knees, all the while playing wildly, making his saxophone hum and croon, comment and complain, screech and squeal as if it were possessed by the spirit of John Coltrane.

The backup band, the Rock of Edges, is on tape, which is a disappointment. Even the best band sounds canned on tape, especially when the tape is played as backup to live performers as energetic as Jones and Ackamoor. Live musical accompaniment would have added a great deal.

Ed Bullins’s script, which uses elements from the Turners’ lives and drops them into a story line remarkably similar to the 1954 version of A Star Is Born (except that no one dies in the end), pulls no punches when it comes to the ways white businessmen exploit black performers. “I know cats who were paid in liquor,” Prince growls at one point in the story, “in drugs, in cars, even in women.” At another point he says bitterly: “What is a nigger without a woman? The white man keeps everything else for himself” Such honest expression of feelings is bracing and, I’m told, very much in line with Ed Bullins’s earlier works from the 70s–Death List, The Theme Is Blackness, and It Bees Dat Way. Most had a black militancy about them all but missing in theater now, in the still-half-asleep post-Reagan era.

This time, however, Bullins’s militancy plays second fiddle to the play’s more mainstream intent: satisfying the audience’s desire to see the gods themselves–or at least their earth-bound representatives–strutting around the stage, telling us their stories of growth and transformation, transcendence and death. At this, I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine succeeds remarkably well.