At Last: A Tribute to Etta James at Black Ensemble Theater

At Last: A Tribute to Etta James at Black Ensemble Theater
Five pieces of the Etta James puzzle. Photo: Danny Nicholas

At last, the irrepressible phenomenon, Etta James comes back to life at Black Ensemble Theater’s (B.E.T.) Tribute to Etta James which opened Sunday.

James, the multi-faceted vocalist extraordinaire who was one of the most critically acclaimed and influential female singers of her time, gets the full-monty treatment exposing her soul–warts and all–while turning up the volume on her sensational mastery of a broad range of musical styles.

The story, which was first produced to critical acclaim in 2005 while James was alive and well and still raising hell at the age of 66, has been updated to reflect the years since then up to her death in 2012.

At Last: A Tribute to Etta James spans the decades from her early years with Chess in the 50’s and 60’s, her reign as a leader in rhythm and blues in the 70’s, her fight to get back on top in the 80’s, through her phenomenal comeback in the 90’s until the final curtain.

In order to get it right, playwright and B.E.T. founder Jackie Taylor, explains  “As the playwright, I found it impossible to tell this story using only one person as Etta James.  Her life was so complex that one actress just couldn’t do her justice – that is why I’ve chosen five Etta’s to bring this play to life.”

The five well-chosen actresses and singing sensations putting together the pieces of Etta at various stages of her life and career (pictured at the top of the post) are:  Candace Edwards (Yellow), Arzula Maxine Gardner (purple), Melanie McCullough (orange), Alanna Taylor (red) and Yahdina U-Deen (blue)–the colors symbolic of periods in her life.  The men in At Last are played by Daniel Phillips, Mark Hood and Adrian Byrd -representing the good, bad and ugly of her relationships.

What’s most sensational about At Last: A Tribute to Etta James are the 26 full-blown songs performed spectacularly by the five Etta’s–some individually, some together along with a series of songs strung together at the end of act one culminating in a full cast extravaganza of musical magic.

Favorites include her signature song “At Last” along with “All I Could Do Was Cry”, “Fool That I Am”, “Drowning In My Own Tears”, “Troubled Times” and an Otis Redding medley with the young and mature James’ facing off in a musical showdown.  A  full blown performance of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind” brought audience members to their feet as did many other numbers.

Etta’s amazing achievements including a Grammy for best Jazz Vocal Performance, Gammy for Best Contemporary Blues Artist, Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with her star on the Hollywood walk of Fame are beautifully chronicled through smart dialogue between the “five Etta’s” lead by the uproariously funny Ms. Real–a drag queen and Etta wannabe–played to perfection by Rueben Echoles.

Her dark side from her unstable childhood, emotional baggage from ill-chosen men, to her weight and drug problems are exposed as an important part of the pieces of the puzzle that made her who she was.

The always on stage orchestra is one of the many reasons to go to Black Ensemble Theatre. For the At Last performance, a 7-man combo lead by Musical director Robert Reddrick and featuring Herb Walker, guitar; Justin Dillard, piano; Danny O’Connor, bass; Bill McFarland, trombone; Dudley Owens, saxophone; and Paul Howard, trumpet ruled.

If you have never been to B.E.T., now is the time to go. If you’re a regular, you know what I mean. As we left the theater Sunday, I noticed something you don’t often see–a smile on every face of audience members as they were exiting the performance space.


Tickets are available online by clicking here or call (773) 769-4451.   Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center is located at 4450 N. Clark Street. Valet parking ($10) is available or there is metered parking on Clark. Extended through January 11, 2015.


Just down the block at 4400 N. Clark is Anna Maria Pasteria–offering fine Italian Cuisine for lunch or dinner plus a 15% discount on your order for Black Ensemble Theater ticket holders (excluding beverages).

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