Black Ensemble

It’s difficult to imagine what it costs the 11 young performers in this Black Ensemble production to step out onstage. Ranging in age from 17 to 21, participants in the Hull House New Directions program, they know more about real-life suffering than they do about the art of suffering on the stage.

None is a professional performer. And when they’re feeling unsure of themselves, they tend to mumble. The songs are sung earnestly but not always on key. Every once in a while one of them will break into a great big grin during a dance number that’s obviously going awry. By that time, unless your heart is made of stone, you’re grinning back. This young cast is so winning, so tough, so lacking in artifice that you’re taken by surprise. It’s downright weird to encounter a group of real human beings gathered together on a stage. The only artifice comes from the adult professionals surrounding them.

Written by Jackie Taylor and Lephate Cunningham Jr., with input from the cast, The Key to Bein’ Me is “a musical documentary solving the hardships of life.” Using theater as a tool to reach out into the community and help young people rebuild self-esteem and push on with their lives is one of the best practical applications of this art form I can think of, and the Black Ensemble deserves plenty of praise. This production, however, falls far short of “solving” any hardships.

The story involves a mysterious adult named Saundra (Sandra McCullough, the 12th performer and the only professional in the production) who seems to be part caseworker and part hip fairy godmother; she encourages a group of young adults to open up and share their troubled pasts, in monologue and in song. This they do, and it is easy to tell when they’re speaking from their hearts and when they’re parroting one of the playwrights’ greeting-card sentiments or indulging in the sort of cliches people resort to when pushed into “communicating.” They do best when they’re allowed to fumble a bit. The song “We Must Save the Children” is not nearly as eloquent as the reaction from one young woman trying to explain her experience as an abused child: she fixes the audience with a resigned look and settles for, “Man. You should’ve been there.”

“If you want to hear about my problems,” another youth challenges, “talk to me about solutions.”

“Believe in yourself,” Saundra counsels–a nice, vague sentiment, easily obtainable from any soft-rock radio station. “Anything’s possible when your heart’s full of love and you learn not to hate,” she sings. How, I wonder, does that bit of advice help the Hispanic girl who’s been threatened with death because she’s dating a black youth? Saundra does not actually suggest how a kid in a bad situation might go about emptying out the hate and filling up on love. Maybe that’s too much to ask of theater, but if you take on a group of real individuals with real problems it’s a shame to fall back on sunny theatrical convention. A big, high-energy dance number celebrating survival can be fun, but this cast deserves better. Somehow, between all the upbeat numbers, wistful love songs, and showers of gratitude toward Saundra for her wise counsel, the cast doesn’t get to talk enough. Their insights are buried under mounds of feel-good philosophy. Beth Leitter has trapped them all in brightly colored “Up With People” tunics and T-shirts, when street clothes might have served the material better.

McCullough’s stage presence doesn’t help matters; next to the natural behavior of the other cast members, hers seems showy and artificial. If this material had been given to an entire cast of professional actors it would have been impossible to watch.