THE WAY WE WERE (THE HISTORY OF COLORED ENTERTAINMENT), Black Ensemble Theater. This company’s usual modus operandi is to showcase one artist through his or her music and snippets of biographical detail. But here writer-director Jackie Taylor explores the role of a whole group of entertainers in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. What the show lacks in tight dramaturgy it makes up for with soul-stirring musical numbers.

Twelve spirited performers tear into the songs and dances as they bring to life, however briefly, legends like Bessie Smith, the Nicholas Brothers, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and Nat King Cole. Taylor also introduces lesser-known figures like Mamie Smith, whose popular 1920 recording of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues” paved the way for Bessie and a host of other recording artists. A comic highlight of the first act is a diva showdown between Mamie, Bessie, classical singer Emma Azalia Smith Hackley, and jazz singer Adelaide Hall. Taylor also touches on intraracial discrimination when David Simmons, playing Cole, bitterly recollects being told by a light-skinned black woman on a bus, “You’re dark and you stink.”

The Way We Were can’t possibly do justice to all of these important artists and thorny sociopolitical issues, and it starts to sag toward the end. But as a primer on the vitality, courage, and talent of black performing artists in the early 20th century–and their influence on contemporary culture–the show is a rousing success.