ONE TIME ONLY FOR ONE NAME ONLY WAS ONE TOO MANY TIMES
Yes, America’s got talent. And the performers on stage at Black Ensemble Theater’s beautiful new digs are packed to the gills with charm, powerful voices, and boundless stage presence. But I can’t remember being this shell-shocked and mortified at the stupendous waste of talent in One Name Only (A Different Kind of Reality Show), one of the most insipid outings in years. What upsets me about One Name Only is that the premise, the dialogue – the whole kit-and-kaboodle – is juvenile to the point of insulting. Writer/director Rueben Echoles’ mash-up is a composite of popular Reality shows – namely Big Brother and American Idol – in which 8 core female contestants go from auditions to elimination rounds until one is chosen by two judges to win $100,000 and a recording contract. And, as we are constantly reminded with all the subtlety of Chinese water torture, only one name will be chosen.
The purpose of a mash-up is to create something completely new out of pre-existing artistic or technological forms. By melding records, for example, DJs gave birth to a new form of rap and hip hop. One Name Only is not a mash-up, as it merely splices together the most compelling parts of Reality TV, such as bitch fights, horrible auditions, surly judges, confessionals, and sad good-byes. Neither is it a parody or an insightful examination of this popular phenomenon. By stealing the exact same structure as American Idol (except that the contestants live together), Echoles has created a jukebox musical as manipulative and unreal as Reality TV; it is merely an excuse to perform covers of popular songs by the Ladies of Soul, most performed quite well, which is the reason that the target audience will forgive the ridiculous shenanigans. For me, the inclusion of soul music doesn’t give the show a soul.
And the characters in this bland and tacky outing are mostly stereotypes, with plenty of the “talk-to-the-hand” attitude – this from a company whose mission is to eradicate racism and its damaging effects upon our society. The mind-bogglingly simplistic dialogue is only partially redeemded by the sparkling diversity and distinction of the actresses’ personalities. My favorite was Lisa Beasley as the staunch single mother Tanika.
Except to throw laurels at the actors and musicians, this excursion is essentially unreviewable. But there are some serious curiosities:
Why would Broadway Star and diva Marylin (Candace C. Edwards), who is an unholy bitch for no good reason, get into a physical catfight with another contestant ON-AIR? This from a woman who desperately needs to jumpstart her career?
Did April (sweet, sweet Deborah Spencer), one of the final few contestants, really drop-out of the competition because her husband, John (Terry Francois) showed up to apologize about cheating on her? Did she really believe that it was necessary to give up her own dreams to save her marriage to this weak-willed man? And why would April’s friend call her to gossip about the cheatin’ husband just as April’s about to sing with Gladys Knight (a funny and precise rendering by Katrina V. Miller)?
In the only other (but equally lame) side story, a parentless contestant is called by her grandfather to inform her that “Gran” had a heart attack, but not to worry, Gran’s in the hospital, you just go be a star; why deliver this info if there’s nothing to worry about? What’s with the insensitive family and friends? Later, Gran returns from the hospital feeble, and yet has the energy to sing an amazing duet with Grandpa – Aretha Franklin’s “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,” backed up by that hot, hot, hot, smokin’ hot band (Music Director Robert Reddrick).
And, really, why are some of the scenes only a few seconds long?
I feel sorry for black audience members who are so desperate to see themselves represented on the stage that they’re willing to shell out $65 a ticket for such an enterprise. I’ll be the first to admit that Dawn Bless lit up the house performing an outrageously good rendition of Patti LaBelle’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” but must we slog through the ridiculousness to get to this eleven o’ clock number?
I understand that the ulterior motive for Black Ensemble productions is to incorporate a showcase for actors to impersonate – or rather, pay tribute to – famous black singers. But I couldn’t help wonder, with all the money poured into this show, why Black Ensemble Theater isn’t dusting off all-black musicals such as Raisin and The Wiz, or adding its spin to other classics of American musical theatre. Obviously, founder Jackie Taylor has a system in place that is working for her Ensemble, but it begs an inquiry:
I rarely – and I mean rarely – see black patrons in the audience when I attend the theater. Whether this is a socio-economic phenomenon or African-Americans are uninterested in theater in general is uncertain. No doubt, at Twist, A Raisin in the Sun, Memphis, and Jitney, the audiences were predominantly black, so I can only assume that this particular minority is starved to see themselves represented on the boards.
Whether Jackie is in tune with her audience’s needs or she is simply a master fundraiser is also uncertain, but I would be fascinated to know how this company managed to fund this magnificent new space while cutting-edge storefront companies such as Remy Bumppo and The House and The Hypocrites (to name but a few) operate on a wing and a prayer.
Time and time again around the country, I have seen minority companies, whether Latino, Asian, or Black, receive grants that are disproportionate to the work that they actually create. When is America going to reward great theater, great storytelling and visionary work instead of granting money for skin color? Why are gay companies, such as the magnificent storefront enterprise The Celebration in Los Angeles, cancelling productions for lack of funding? Is it Politically Correct for Corporate America to hurl bucks at Companies of Color, but not at homosexual troupes?
And how did it happen that it is verboten to tell the truth about minority companies and productions when they don’t work? (I can’t wait to see what the other opening night reviewers say about One Name Only.) I am astounded at so-called critics who toss cheerleading reviews to theater that celebrates the dumbing-down of America, just because the company is comprised of people of color; somehow, it’s become insensitive to tell the truth about the inanity that is on stage – as though it may somehow offend the creators, whose people have known naught but prejudice and a lack of opportunity. It is the superficial positive feedback from audiences and critics towards mediocrity in the arts which is perpetuating the sophomoric culture in America. Americans, black and white, are starved for intelligent and nutritious theater, but they’ll attend light-hearted, inane pablum if that is what they are accustomed to or can afford (need I remind you that McDonald’s sales are soaring during this recession?) Is it wrong of me to wonder why BET isn’t expanding their vision beyond “Tributes” and educational outreach to nurture the next poetical playwright of color in the vein of a Lynn Nottage or Lorraine Hansberry?
I, for one, am holding Black Ensemble Theater, and the incredible array of talent therein, to a higher standard; meeting such a standard will require that BET formulate a vision for the next generation of black theater.
photos by Danny Nicholas
One Name Only (A Different Kind of Reality Show)
Black Ensemble Theater
scheduled to end on November 11, 2012
for tickets, call (773) 769-4451 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com
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