It's All-Right to Have a Good Time: The Story of Curtis Mayfield at Black Ensemble Theater: Theater review
Black Ensemble's treatment of the Chicago-native soul legend sports great musical renditions but gives short shrift to deeper issues.
Black Ensemble Theater’s latest is a shining, well-produced tribute to the life and music of soul legend Curtis Mayfield: great music, great performances by a talented ensemble and an impeccable backing band, and a pleasant, tidy retrospective of a remarkable career. For those who are looking to hear hits from "People Get Ready" to "Superfly" and celebrate Mayfield’s memory through his music, It’s All-Right doesn’t disappoint. As a play, I found it less than satisfying.
It’s All-Right suffers from that common plague of historical work, when the omniscience and hindsight of the playwright infects the present on stage. The characters are painfully aware that they're historical figures talking their way into the next milestone. They broadcast the eventual significance of every act, effectively killing any tension. We’re left instead with a point-to-point timeline of Curtis’s life, each scene doing little more than introducing the next song. Thankfully, the songs are the play’s best moments, when the performances feel truly in-the-moment, when the play stops defining Curtis for us and lets his music speak for itself.
I just wanted more. I wanted to dig deep into Mayfield’s soul. I wanted to see what made him tick, what about Chicago inspired that sound, and why this city was so vital to his ability to produce it. I wanted drama. There are sparks of conflict—band break-ups, label power struggles, the creeping in of the civil rights movement—the play just never lingers on any one issue long enough to go beneath the surface. We never get to see the man behind a very pristine image. His positivity and resilience are worth celebrating, but his music and his activism suggest a more complex figure than this portrait gives us.