Reviewed by Tom Lawler
Black Ensemble Theater presents AIN’T NO CRYING THE BLUES (IN THE MEMORY OF HOWLIN’ WOLF). If there was a Mount Rushmore of the all-time blues greats, Chester Arthur Burnett, AKA “Howlin’ Wolf,” would certainly be carved on it, joined by a select group including Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Willie Dixon and his contemporary rival, Muddy Waters.
Standing 6 and-and-a-half feet tall and weighing over 300 pounds with a deep, burrowing voice, Howlin’ Wolf was legendary for both rocking the house with an electric stage show honed in Delta juke joints and terrifying the audience with his larger-than-life intensity and fearlessness. An actor stepping into a role this big requires a certain presence . . . and Black Ensemble Theater founder Jackie Taylor has cast an ideal Howlin’ Wolf in Rick Stone.
In addition to penning Ain’t No Crying the Blues, Taylor grew up with Stone in Cabrini-Green and they both appeared in 1975’s black cinema classic, Cooley High. In addition, Stone had already portrayed Wolf in a previously acclaimed 2003 Black Ensemble production (though with a different script), so he’s well prepared for the demands of playing the blues legend known for widely-covered classics such as “Red Rooster,” “Smokestack Lightin’” and “Backdoor Man.”
We first lay eyes on Stone’s Wolf after Black Ensemble’s rock solid backing band (led by musical director and drummer Robert Reddrick) kicks into a Howling Wolf classic. Stone cuts an imposing figure in a shiny powder blue suit (who else could pull this off?) and as you see him survey the audience and strut, it’s easy to see where Mick Jagger “found” so many of his moves. From just this first song, it’s apparent that Stone is the real deal and he owns this role full-stop.
When the song concludes, Wolf tells us that “as long as you remember someone, you’ve haven’t lost them.” We learn that this is going to be a memory play. Between the electrifying musical performances, we get brief reenactments from his life – from his dirt poor childhood in Mississippi to establishing a recording career with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis before migrating up to Chicago in the 1950s to record with Chess Records and cement his status as one of the all-time Blues greats. There’s also some comic relief in the form of recurring visits from Wolf’s professional rival, Muddy Waters (a perpetually amused Dwight Neal), who is repeatedly told to go away because this “this ain’t your set!” (What was the cause of this bitter, decades-long rivalry? You’ll have to come see this gorgeous production to find out.)
As a key figure in the Chicago blues scene, Howling Wolf helped create a musical legacy that the city continues to embrace and profit from today. As the creator of Ain’t No Crying the Blues, it’s clear to see how passionate Taylor and director Rueben Echoles are about documenting and remembering the legacy of blues greats such as Wolf and they bring special attention to his artistic integrity and financial acumen. Not only was he conservative with his own earnings, Wolf also closely managed the pay of his backing band to insure that they had medical and retirement benefits. Pushing this edutainment a bit too forcefully, Taylor also makes a point to call out how Wolf’s wife, Lillie (warmly portrayed by Kylah Williams) continued to support the band after Wolf’s passing in 1976.
As a result, Ain’t No Crying the Blues paints a fascinating dichotomy of a musician who appears to be a saint off the stage, but on stage is nothing less than a salacious, menacing tornado of entertainment and work ethic. Is this the complete truth? Perhaps not, but as the musical embodiment of Howling Wolf, Stone brings a gritty, life-or-death conviction to his performance that feels completely authentic. This was echoed by the nodding, smiling faces of so many well-dressed audience members for this press opening who turned out to be relatives of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. The older family members were likely remembering who they lost and the younger ones (and this critic) were privileged to experience these greats in the flesh for the first time.
Running Time: 2.5 hours with one intermission.
At the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St
Written by: Jackie Taylor
Directed by: Rueben Echols and Daryl Brooks (Assistant Director)
Musical Director: Robert Reddrick
Wed and Thurs: 7:30pm
Sat: 3:00 and 8:00pm
Through Aug 11
Buy tickets at 773-769-4451 or online at http://boxoffice.printtixusa.com/blackensemble/eventcalendar
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Production photo courtesy of Danny Nicholas