“Ladies and gentlemen, I bring to you, the Dynamite Divas Telecast, featuring Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Gladys Knight and Nancy Wilson!,” bellowed Mr. Maurice (Rueben D. Echoles) as he stood alone at center stage. “This grand concert features the biggest and most influential R&B singers of our time!”
From Mr. Maurice’s opening scene of Dynamite Divas, he joins his two assistants Young Blood (Kyle Smith) and Hubert (Donald Craig Manuel), to set the stage for a concert performance that’s too good to be true. Jackie Taylor, Founder and CEO of Black Ensemble Theater and writer of Dynamite Divas, takes her imagination to stage with a fictional concert performance that features four of the most highly acclaimed R&B soul artists, Aretha Franklin (Shari Addison), Gladys Knight (Rashada Dawan), Roberta Flack (Melanie McCullough) and Nancy Wilson (Rhonda Preston).
“The classic R&B music makes me want to dance in my seat. It’s an era that is long gone, yet very appreciated,” exclaims Daina Howze, a long-time supporter of Black Ensemble Theatre. “That was the era where a singer was a songstress, and really couldn’t be called a diva because in those times, even though they made millions for the record company they lived a very humble life with less fanfare.”
In Dynamite Divas, Mr. Maurice is the over zealous host who is the financier and visionaire of this unique collaboration. He humbly touts this mega production as ‘the best soul concert ever’, by showcasing their live performances onstage and throughout the world via internet.
Maurice’s mastermind production has gathered these four ladies, now in their ’70’s, in one studio room with the promise of paying them over 2 million dollars each for their participation. Their close encounters entice memories of yesteryear, leading to Black Ensemble Theatre’s powerhouse thespians, Rashada Dawan, Rhonda Preston, Melanie McCullough and gospel recording artist Shari Addison to bring this musical stage play to life.
“My favorite song to perform is Letter Full of Tears. It seems to bring back so many memories to the people in the audience,” says accomplished actress and singer Rashada Dawan, who has performed in popular plays like The Lion King, Aida, and most recently BET’s BlackWhite Love Play. Dawan says she was excited to transform into one of her favorite heroes, Gladys Knight.
“I’ve watched many, many videos, which of course had me singing around the house for days. I studied her little nuances and learned that she loves to smile,”explains Dawan. “I noticed how sincere and grounded she is, and that Gladys encouraged me to find that in myself, and bring that out.”
In addition to featuring the Divas’, Echoles, who is also credited as director and costume designer, educates the audience with a historical presentation of other notable African American singer-songwriters. The colorful and glitzy stage created by BET’s The A Team and the special effect lighting by Denise Karczewski, became the backdrop for a screen projected music-video to showcase artists like Etta James, Dinah Washington and Whitney Houston.
But it was Maurice’s new high-tech time-machine (which he proudly confesses as one of his inventions) that gives a flashback look at pivotal performances of an artist’s career. His time machine ‘assimilator’ transport artists like Dionne Warwick, Patti Labelle, Nina Simone, and Tina Turner to take center stage in a live performance, that also include a touching duet featuring Donny Hathaway (Daniel Phillips) and a young Roberta Flack (Kylah Frye).
“I was really amazed with the detail of the set, costumes and wig designs. I expected an exciting glamorous performance, and that’s exactly what I received,” expresses Howze. “ The costuming was excellent and very authentic.” Howze says she was impressed by the likeness and portrayal of each artist that was captured on stage. She particularly enjoyed the dance collaboration with Roberta’s signature song, Reverend Lee.
“It was the duet performance that the younger Roberta Flack sang with Donny Hathaway that touched me the most. And in Reverend Lee, of course I knew the actors were talented with beautiful voices, but I had no idea that they were equally talented in modern dance. It was so wonderful.”
Howze wasn’t the only one in the audience who was enjoying the music featured in Dynamite Divas. Throughout the course of the play, patrons stood in ovation, as they sang along to Aretha Franklin’s Rock Steady, Nancy Wilson’s Guess Who I Saw Today, Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly and Gladys Knight’s Midnight Train to Georgia.
“I would like the audience to leave feeling rejuvenated by the music and inspired by the story,” expresses Dawan. She also says that these women overcame so much in their lives, their ability to remain so successful in an ever changing industry is simply remarkable.
“I hope people remember the good times and embrace and share these moments with each other, and feel the power of these woman and their timeless classics.”
For Echoles, who has proved to be a triple talent at BET, he expresses his thanks to music director Robert Reddrick for leading a phenomenal seven piece band musical production, and the honor of having a talented ensemble that could sing, dance, and perform to perfection. “Wow, what a journey this has been,” writes Echoles in the playbill’s opening letter. “I am so honored to have been chosen to lead such a dynamic group of artists. To Jackie, thank you for trusting me with your words and your guidance. To the audience, I pray that you enjoy watching the show as much as I have enjoyed being a part of it.”
And in his ‘Mr. Maurice’ voice, the shows’ super host who throughout the play, built up so much excitement, Echoles boastfully announces, “Without further ado, Ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy Dynamite Divas!”
Patrons can purchase tickets for Dynamite Divas online at www.blackensemble.org or by calling 773.769.4451. Dynamite Divas is playing now through January 24, 2016. For more information on the Black Ensemble Theater Company, visit www.blackensembletheater.org.