Black Ensemble Theater

I’m depressed.

This really seemed like a show that couldn’t miss.

But it did.

What happened?

You’d think there would be no way to botch a play about WVON, 1450 AM. Probably the most important radio station in Chicago history, this 1000-watt operation on South Kedzie owned by blues impresarios Leonard and Phil Chess was the number-one station in the city from 1963 into the early 70s. With a memorable roster of deejays that included Pervis Spann (“The all-day all-night bluesman”), superhip Herb “Cool Gent” Kent, and sweet-talking Lucky Cordell, WVON turned Chicago on to the music of Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler and the Impressions, and the Chi-Lites. WVON was also a pioneer in talk radio. Present general manager Wesley South hosted Hotline, on which pivotal figures in the African American community like Dick Gregory and Elijah Muhammad appeared live. When Martin Luther King came on South’s show cars lined up for miles on Kedzie, full of people waiting to catch a glimpse of him. King delivered an impromptu address in the WVON parking lot. In the 80s WVON’s talk shows were credited with turning out the vote for Harold Washington.

Jackie Taylor, director and producer of the Black Ensemble Theater’s WVON Radio Story, had at her disposal some of the most talented actors and singers in the city. The inimitably loopy and charismatic Clifford Frazier was a perfect choice to play Pervis Spann. As deejay E. Rodney Jones, Senuwell Smith has an exciting and commanding presence that grows more effective with each of his performances. The hilarious Thomas Green delightfully captures the pseudoisland patois of deejay Ed Cook. And, backed by an incredibly tight and effusive band led by Jimmy Tillman, Phyllis Overstreet, Eva D, and Direoce Junirs knocked out fantastic renditions of the sorts of R & B numbers that made WVON famous.

You’d think that all you’d need would be some sort of threadbare plot and the characters and music would do the rest. But Taylor never really tries to give us a play; instead, we get a dry history lesson interrupted by joyous but irrelevant musical numbers.

The first hour is almost all taken up by the deejays introducing themselves, giving us a taste of their shtick and the sort of rote information usually found in high school oral reports. “I had a highly successful show,” says Lucky Cordell. “I climbed quickly up the ladder.” Bernadine Washington tells us, “I was the first black woman vice president of a major radio station.” Good. Fine. But this is not the most interesting way of giving information.

Taylor’s script is loaded with saccharine cliches. One deejay says, “We all had our own personas, but we were real people underneath.” Another suggests that “WVON was like a family, but it wasn’t all wine and roses.” The play rarely gets any deeper.

Round about the last third of act one, The WVON Radio Story develops a germ of a plot. To keep up with the times, the station squelches its deejays in favor of more music. Finally it’s unloaded to a corporation, and Wesley South and Pervis Spann plot to buy it back. Unfortunately, this story line is little more than window dressing for a variety of musical numbers by actors impersonating the Chi-Lites, Jerry Butler, Koko Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Fontella Bass, and Chuck Jackson. This is fun to watch, but one wishes that Aretha Franklin and Koko Taylor hadn’t been played by the same actress and Chuck Jackson and Jerry Butler by the same actor. The double casting makes the show seem cheesy and sloppy. Which, of course, it is.

WVON stalwarts Spann, South, Kent, Butler Ball Crane, and others are credited with having assisted in the show’s research. Perhaps they should have just written it themselves.

(A side note to whoever proofread the program: I believe that in Sandra Caldwell’s listing, the statement “Her film credits include Life With Kikey with Michael J. Fox” contains a rather unfortunate typo.)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.