“THE DIVINE ONE” (A SARAH VAUGHAN REVUE), Black Ensemble Theater. How do you re-create the essence of a great artist? Playwright Senuwell Smith comes up with an effective technique for showcasing the life and music of jazz legend Sarah Vaughan in this world premiere by telling Sarah’s story through the eyes of her childhood friend, and later gal Friday, Medinah Davis. Rather than try to delve into Vaughan’s mind, Smith makes Davis (played by the charming, energetic Pam Mack) the narrator, commenting on Vaughan so we know we’re getting Sarah’s story secondhand and are willing to play along. And since it’s impossible to find another singer with Vaughan’s unique sound, Smith splits the part into five Sarahs, each playing Vaughan at a different stage, from shy church girl taking the stage at the Apollo to the heartbroken lady who’s survived several troubled marriages, racial segregation, alcohol, drugs, and career ups and downs while maintaining her strength and sass.
Director-choreographer Donald Douglass guides us on this musical journey through four decades; his staging is especially jubilant when all the actresses are onstage at once. As Vaughan, LaVondra Hinton, KaCynthia Thompson, Toi Overton, Samotta McKeever, and Vernetta Williams find wonderful moments in portraying Sarah’s greatness. From the rich music of the live jazz ensemble to Smith’s script, this revue is above all a celebration, not a strict biography of one of this century’s greatest treasures.
–Gabrielle S. Kaplan