Ain't No Crying the Blues (In the Memory of Howlin' Wolf) at Black Ensemble Theater | Theater review
Jackie Taylor doesn't find much drama in the life of blues legend Howlin' Wolf, but as usual Black Ensemble does a bang-up job on the music.
During family road trips as a child, my parents would play cassette tapes that spotlighted classical composers by combining key musical selections with biographical information. The music was beautiful, but the historical facts were presented in a way that was encyclopedic and impersonal. The spirit of those cassettes lives on in Jackie Taylor’s work at Black Ensemble Theater, which pays tribute to legendary black artists with shows that tend to have far stronger songs than scripts.
A revised remount of BET’s 2003 production, Ain’t No Cryin' the Blues (In the Memory of Howlin’ Wolf) pairs outstanding vocalists with one of the best backing bands in Chicago theater for a rousing musical experience. Reprising his role as bluesman Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Rick Stone’s gravelly voice and gyrating hips get audience members clapping, dancing and singing in their seats. When Howlin’ Wolf classics like “Spoonful” and “Smokestack Lightning” are playing, the production has an energy that creates an invigorating relationship between the audience and the performers. And that’s before some of the female patrons are asked to join Howlin’ Wolf on stage for a group grind session.
Taylor's a big fan of having her lead characters address the audience from the afterlife, presenting the artists’ background information like a Wikipedia page written by the sentimental souls at Hallmark. This script struggles to create drama from a story that's tame compared to most of the famous musicians favored by Black Ensemble; Howlin’ Wolf never had a drug problem, was happily married for 12 years and was a smart businessman who refused to be swindled for his talent. (Maybe that’s why Howlin’ Wolf is about a half hour shorter than most BET shows.)
The show's big conflict is Howlin’ Wolf’s rivalry with Muddy Waters (Dwight Neal)—mostly just a way for Taylor to insert some of Muddy’s songs into the proceedings. There’s a simplicity to the book that puts all the focus on the singing, where the ensemble doesn't disappoint. Stone’s evocative lead performance sets a high bar that's met by his costars, with Cynthia F. Carter delivering a highlight with her version of “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Sit on It (The Chair Song).” When the band is grooving and the actors are working the crowd, Howlin’ Wolf is a communal experience that can’t be matched.