Ain’t No Cryin’ the Blues:
In the Memory of Howlin’ Wolf
Powerful and engaging, with rockin’ lead
|Black Ensemble Theater presents|
|Ain’t No Cryin’ the Blues:
In the Memory of Howlin’ Wolf
Review by Lauren Whalen
Black Ensemble Theater never fails to entertain. I’ve previously reviewed two BET shows (2012’s The Marvin Gaye Story and One Name Only) and left both energized and enthusiastic, with great music on my mind. Ain’t No Crying the Blues (In the Memory of Howlin’ Wolf), however, is on a whole other level. Thanks to a more polished script and a transcendent leading man, it’s not only a Black Ensemble Theater standout but one of 2013’s most memorable productions.
Over two fast-paced hours, the late blues legend Howlin’ Wolf (Rick Stone) reflects upon his life – sometimes through dialogue, but mostly in song. Born Chester Arthur Bennett, Howlin’ Wolf faced nearly unbeatable odds: he was thrown out of the house by his religious mother at 7 years old, only to endure abuse from an uncle until he was taken in by his biological father as a teenager. After a short stint in the Army, Howlin’ Wolf drew on his tumultuous life and love of singing (the only thing, he says, he inherited from his mother) to become one of the greatest blues musicians who ever lived.
Ain’t No Crying the Blues was written by Black Ensemble Theater Founder and CEO Jackie Taylor, who wisely eschews long-winded scenes (that plagued The Marvin Gaye Story) and awkward exposition (One Name Only’s main fault) in favor of the powerful storyteller and big draw: the music. Aided by an able cast and phenomenal onstage band (Black Ensemble Theater never skimps on true, soul-baring talent), Stone channels Howlin’ Wolf’s trademark dynamic presence through songs like “Smokestack Lightning” and “Sittin’ On Top of the World”. The blues is made up of stories, often painfully tragic and deeply joyful in the same verse, and Taylor does an excellent job of tying together the soundtrack with just enough biographical information.
While the script, score and production values are strong, Stone is the show’s growling, howling highlight. His Howlin’ Wolf engages with each and every audience member in the large auditorium, channeling the real-life legend’s notorious dynamic stage presence. He bugs his eyes. He gyrates. He pulls eager women up on stage to dance. He gets down on all fours and yowls at a mythical moon: all of this while barely taking a break and performing the most poignant, earthy music in existence. Stone first performed this role in a different Black Ensemble Theater production back in 2003, and he gives every note, every breath, every movement his all – and more.
From bombastic beginning to heartfelt end, Ain’t No Crying the Blues is a fitting testament to a groundbreaking figure, and a thoroughly electrifying experience even for a blues newbie like me. When Stone asks the audience to remember lost loved ones, and to say their name, everyone listens and obeys. Because just as the departed live on in our heads and hearts, so does Howlin’ Wolf in everything from country music to punk. A legacy never fades, only ripples, and Black Ensemble Theater’s sterling production knows that truth, and sings it loud and clear.
Ain’t No Cryin’ the Blues continues through August 11th at Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark (map), with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $55-$65, and are available by phone (773-769-4451) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BlackEnsemble.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Danny Nicholas
Rick Stone (Howlin’ Wolf), Cecil Jones (Young Wolf), Dwight Neal (Muddy Waters), Michael Reckling (Leonard Chess), Rashawn Thompson (Hubert Sumlin), Claudia Cunningham, Cynthia F. Carter, Danielle Davis, Mark Hood, Theo Huff, Lyle Miller, Kylah Williams, Raymond Wise (Ensemble)
Tracey Baker (bass), Robert Reddrick (drums), Herbert Walker (guitar), Oscar Brown (guitar), Mark Moutrup (piano)
behind the scenes
Rueben Echoles (director), Daryl Brooks (asst. director), Robert Reddrick (musical director), Denise Karczewski (lighting design), Kristy Leigh Hall (costume design), Helen Lattyak (props design), CoCo Lemry (scenic painter), Bekki Lambrect (tech producer), Emily Wall (stage manager), Danny Nicholas (photos)