Don't Shed a Tear ...
Black Ensemble Theater. By Jackie Taylor. Dir. Taylor. With Vikki Omega Stokes.
There are elements in nature that Man, for all his technology and material resources, cannot replicate. Billie Holiday’s voice is one of them. In order to approximate Lady Day, the gifted singer Vikki Stokes puts on a squawk, carefully drags behind a beat or three and bends her notes like they were pipe cleaners. But it’s a tough gig to sustain, and when Stokes lets her guard down, her own trained instrument shines through and reminds us what mimicry prevents: a genuinely personal interpretation of a song’s meaning. And when the meaning of a complicated lyric gets stripped away, well, as goes “God Bless the Child,” so goes a Billie Holiday revue.
Don’t Shed a Tear is notable for another reason, though. After 30 years at the helm of Black Ensemble bio tributes, writer-director Taylor has tackled a life that defies the sugarcoat template of countless R&B stars who eventually kicked their vices and found spiritual redemption en route to BET’s stage. A minefield of F-bombs and open worship of narcotics, Taylor’s Holiday show admirably finds its energy in “Fuck yous” rather than “Hallelujahs.” Still, the rambling narrative of Holiday’s unspeakably painful life (prostitute mom, childhood rape, bum men) feels less deliberate than unfocused.
BET’s other current revue, the almostcriminally entertaining Those Sensational Soulful Sixties, revives several utilitarian studio artists, and without a problem. But it’s impossible to recreate the spirit of one, as it were, that’s got his own.—Christopher Piatt