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"At Last---A Tribute to Etta James," at Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago through Jan. 11.

History Set to Music in Black Ensemble Theater’s 2015 Season

A season of musical tributes will salute Bill Withers and great pop divas, as well as Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first black baseball pro, and film critic Roger Ebert.

CHICAGO: The Black Ensemble Theater has announced its 2015 season, titled “Stir Up the Pot.” It will feature five productions that all incorporate music in some way: The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker (a world premiere), Sounds So Sweet, A Tribute to the Incomparable Bill WithersThe Black White Play and Dynamite Divas: Gladys, Aretha, Roberta, Nina and Nancy.

“These productions will continue to speak to the Black Ensemble mission of eradicating racism, but they will add a different flavor to the outstanding offerings that come from the Black Ensemble Theater,” said Jackie Taylor, the theatre’s founder, in a statement. “Remember we’re not changing—we’re expanding!”

The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker (Feb. 7–March 15, written by Ervin Gardner and directed by Taylor), described as a “non-singing musical drama” about the first professional African-American baseball player, opens the season. The show follows the true story of Walker being accused of murdering a white man in a time when lynching was still common, and the aftermath of his case. The show received a reading this past April during the theatre’s Black Playwrights Festival.

Next up is Sounds So Sweet (April 11–May 17, written and directed by Rueben Echoles), which promises to serenade the audience with hits from Motown all the way up to En Vogue, in a battle of old-school girl groups versus the new school. The show first appeared as part of the Black Playwrights Festival in 2010.

A Tribute to the Incomparable Bill Withers (June 20–Aug. 16, written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks), yet another 2014 Black Playwrights Festival grad, will take theatregoers back to the sounds and songs of the ’60s. A bio-musical of the legendary singer and songwriter, who was born in a West Virginia coal-mining town in 1938 and went on to pen such Motown classics as “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

The next show will feature another real-life figure: the late film critic Roger Ebert. In The Black White Play (Honoring the Memory of Roger Ebert through Music) (Sept. 19–Nov.1, written and directed by Taylor), Ebert’s life and philosophy will be set to music, in a production partly sponsored by a grant from the Roger Ebert Foundation.

Finally, the divas of pop music will come together in the final production of the season, Dynamite Divas: Gladys, Aretha, Roberta, Nina and Nancy (Dec. 6–Jan. 12, by Taylor and directed by Daryl D. Brooks). The play imagines a reunion for its title stars, who somehow all find themselves in the same room for an evening. Originally presented in 2001, the revival of the play will also add in a few modern-day divas: Beyoncé and Mariah Carey.

In addition to its regular season, Black Ensemble Theater will also host an International Theater Festival (May 23–30), which will feature performances from different cultures. Performers already on the bill will be Tonsy Egyptian Physical Dance Theatre, the Romanian film After the Fall: HIV Grows Up, and other international offerings to be announced.

The Black Ensemble Theater, which Taylor founded in 1976, is currently in the process of building a new 150-seat space in its home at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center. The new theatre will begin construction in January, with an opening scheduled for September 2015.

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