Black Ensemble Theater has cornered the Chicago market on excellent musical tributes to prominent Black musicians, and their latest show Reasons: A Tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) is no exception. The show is a high-octane extravaganza that opens with a set of glowing drumsticks, signaling that something special has arrived.
Maurice White, the founder of EWF, is played simultaneously by Christian Denzel Bufford (Mature Maurice) and RJ Griffith (Young Maurice). Both actors channel White’s infectious joy and his warm, melodic voice with aplomb. Gregory Stewart Jr. plays EWF member Philip Bailey, and his pitch-perfect vocal renditions are worth the price of admission, including his show-stopping rendition of the iconic aria from “Fantasy.”
Reasons: A Tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire
Through 4/30: Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark, 773-769-4451, blackensembletheater.org, $56.50-$66.50
The show is anchored by BE veteran performers Rhonda Preston (Ms. Robinson) and Dwight Neal (Dr. Adams). Neal’s expert recreation of Billy Stewart’s 1966 recording of “Summertime” is a real treat, and Preston lets loose her gorgeous voice with “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.” The Black Ensemble band shines, showcasing their horn section, percussion, and plenty of sick guitar riffs, including a fun rendition of Phil Collins and Philip Bailey’s duet of “Easy Lover.” Marquecia Jordan’s costumes are outstanding and rise to meet the outrageousness of the music.
Writer and director Daryl D. Brooks sticks to his tried-and-true campy narrative format, which shines when highlighting the broad strokes of White’s life, the band’s hit songs like “That’s the Way of the World,” “Sing a Song,” and “September,” and showcasing era contemporaries and collaborators. Brooks’s narrative lacks in some points, the most notable being that it mentions on multiple occasions White’s wife and kids but never shows them. The story also does not deeply explore White’s self-created brand of Afrocentric spirituality that is the core of his music, lyrics, and the symbolism of EWF’s album art. These are not so much criticisms as a recognition that a more sophisticated and artistically surreal version of this stage production might exist if told through White’s spiritual lens, which was a blend of Christianity, astrology, mysticism, and Egyptian influences.
But perhaps it’s enough to just let the music speak for itself. After all, White said, “I wanted our music to convey messages of universal love and harmony without force-feeding listeners’ spiritual content.” At Reasons: A Tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire, the message of love shines brightly through the music, and I highly recommend you check it out.