Review: ‘Mr. Soul!’- A Black Cultural Experience To Be Treasured – Hypnotic and Poignant

Photo: Ivan Cury, Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

Not long ago, when life had some semblance of normalcy, I had covered the Urbanworld Film Festival in person and was tasked with writing about the festival’s anticipated blockbusters. While waiting for one of these films to begin, I snuck into an adjacent theater to watch the documentary, Mr. Soul! by director and producer, Melissa Haizlip.  I was intrigued by the film’s poster; it read: Before Oprah, Before Arsenio…There was: Mr. Soul! As a longtime fan of late-night talk shows, I was irritated and frustrated at myself for not knowing whom this revolutionary pioneer of Black entertainment and culture was. His name: Ellis Haizlip. The producer and host of the PBS variety show: Soul! changed the national scope and existing perceptions of Blacks in a volatile 1960s backdrop – forever! No surprise it won Urbanworld Film Festival’s Best Documentary category and received a standing ovation the Sundance Film Festival.  So what was so extraordinary about Ellis Haizlip and this entertainment show he launched in 1968?

Ellis Haizlip Surrounded by Members of the J.C. White Choir, Photo: Alex Harsley, Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

Ellis Haizlip was a visionary and determined to shatter contrived media perception of Blacks at the time, as victims subjected to abject poverty or lawless citizens in the United States. Raised in Washington in a middle-class family and setting his sights on New York to form his production company, his aim was to push Black Arts forward, as it was evident to Haizlip that there was a huge void to fill. Blair Underwood, executive produced and narrates Ellis Haizlip’s thoughts in the film so eloquently and powerfully states: “Before we can educate and entertain, we need to share the Black experience.” And that Ellis did. In its inception, Soul! aired only in New York and managed to go national in 1969. The once local program set forth the careers of the most prominent artists in Black history: Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and his Wonderlove band, Al Green, Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier, and Toni Morrison to name a few. Haizlip was fearless in giving a visual platform to outspoken Black poets like The Last Poets – including 6 female poets, such as Sonia Sanchez, and pushed boundaries by interviewing Minister Louis Farrakhan and Kathleen Cleaver (wife of exiled Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver).

Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin in 1971, Film Still Courtesy of: Shoes in the Bed Productions.

In his quest to unleash artists’ natural talents via the television medium, he often prompted poets and singers to take the stage unfiltered and unencumbered. He employed females on his set and advocated for an interview conducted by renowned poet and activist, Nikki Giovanni and literary legend, James Baldwin in England. The footage of the animated and captivating Baldwin and inquisitive Giovanni is unprecedented – a Black female interviewer engaging in a fiery conservation with one of America’s beloved writers is quite impressionable to see in 1971, shortly after, Soul! aired until 1973, defunded and shut down by nefarious forces, as detailed in the documentary.

(L to R) – AMANDA SEALES; TOP – MELISSA HAIZLIP/BLAIR UNDERWOOD; MIDDLE – STAN LATHAN/NIKKI GIOVANNI; BOTTOM – SONIA SANCHEZ/ROBERT GLASPER/THE LAST POETS/BLACK IVORY – Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

So where are we now? It’s 2020 and social justice continues to be a pressing urgent issue in the United States as police brutality continues to plague Black Americans, exacerbated by the tragic loss of our Black icons this year. Mr. Soul’s recent Kickback premiere reminded us of the past, present, and future Black Excellence represents and the need to cultivate and preserve its existence. Host and comedienne, Amanda Seales led the conversation with guests, Melissa Haizlip (Ellis Haizlip’s niece & creative engine behind Mr. Soul!) Actor Blair Underwood, acclaimed director, Stan Lathan (former director of Soul!) Activist and poet Felipe Luciano who guest-hosted the popular “Shades of Soul” episode, featuring Tito Puente and his orchestra, Haizlip exposed television audiences to Latin music and multi-cultural Afro-Latino bands. To say the Soul! television show was groundbreaking doesn’t suffice; it was one of a kind until this day. The legacy Ellis Haizlip left behind cemented the foundation for Black culture never before seen on a national scale – fusing poetry, activism, theatre, dance, and music for the world to experience and solidify the richness of Black arts. Mr. Soul! is available in more than 70 virtual cinemas worldwide through September 10th. To buy tickets and learn more about Mr. Soul! click here.

Review: ‘A Christmas Carol in Harlem’ – Modern Twist of a Favorite Classic: Delightfully Uplifting

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L to R: Emery Jones as Tiny Timothia and Charles Bernard Murray as Ebenezer Scrooge, Photo: Jill Jones

The holiday season is upon us and as you plan the rest of your entertainment activities with friends and family for the month of December look no further than A Christmas Carol in Harlem to fill you with glee. The Classical Theatre of Harlem brings to the stage a new adaptation of the beloved Charles Dickens novel. Its main character Ebenezer Scrooge, is a real estate mogul and community curmudgeon, who’s acquired his wealth at the expense of others and lacks empathy towards the less fortunate. He refuses to part with his money to help the needy without getting something in return. Scrooges’ lonely existence – and world – is turned upside down by the visit of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. And, is forced to contend with the error of his ways. Almost two centuries old, this famous tale is as timely as ever with income disparity becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the country and citizens being displaced from their neighborhoods.

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L to R: Kaden Jones as Young Ebenezer, Charles Bernard Murray as Scrooge, Eryn Barnes as Ghost of Christmas Past, Photo: Jill Jones

Set in present day Harlem, this dynamic cast’s interpretation is replete with magical strobes; hip-hop, lively dance numbers and singers with impressive vocal range. The festive and wintry backdrop sets the tone and Charles Bernard Murray (Honkey Tonk Nights) portrays the miserly Scrooge with conviction and wit. The most memorable ghost in the production: Christmas Past, as she sashays across the stage with interpretive dance to transition between Scrooge’s past memories – a wonderful creative touch as only the Classical Theatre of Harlem group can conceive.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary season, The Classical Theatre of Harlem brings A Christmas Carol in Harlem production, with a 90-minute runtime, to the City College Center for the Arts’ Aaron Davis Hall from now through December 21, 2019. Don’t miss this spectacular holiday show for children and adult of all ages. To learn more about A Christmas Carol in Harlem and buy tickets, click here.

CREDITS:
The company of “A Christmas Carol in Harlem” includes: Eryn Barnes (as The Ghost of Christmas Past), Reed HarrisButts (as Bennie),  Kahlil X Daniel (as The Ghost of Christmas Future), Gabrielle Djenné (as Fan and Belle; The Bacchae), Daniel Echevarria (as Fezz; In The Heights, Something like a Fairytale, The Open Gate), Ure Egbuho (as Sierra Jones; Good Friday, Locked Up Bitches; SCRAPS), Paula Galloway (as Claudette; The Colored Museum, Ain’t Misbehavin’), Steve Greenstein (as Jacob Marley; Flashdance the Musical), Emery Jones (as Tiny Timothia), Kaden Jones (as Child Scrooge and Bennie), Charles Bernard Murray (as Scrooge; The Bacchae), Andrei Pierre (as The Ghost of Christmas Present), Angela Polite (as Clock Shop Lady; MARY SPEAKS, Flambeaux), Jeffrey Rashad (as Bob Cratchit and Young Scrooge), and Kenzie Ross (as Mrs. Cratchit; Blood at the Root, When We Left). The ensemble features dancers from Elisa Monte Dance includingTracy Dunbar, Kat Files, Daniela Funicello, Ashley LaRosa and Sai Rodboon.
Based on the Charles Dickens Novella; Adapted by Shawn René Graham; Director: Carl Cofield; Choreographer: Tiffany Rea-Fisher; Costume Design: Lex Liang and Margaret Goldrainer; Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards; Music Director: Kahlil X Daniel: Scenic Design: Izmir Ickbal; Sound Design: Kathy Ruvuna; Production Stage Manager: William V. Carlton; Projections Designer: Shawn Boyle; Props: Samantha Shoffner.

 

Broadway Review: ‘Tina’ – Riveting, Heartfelt, and A Testament To Tina Turner’s Indelible Star Power

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

Upon hearing that the Tina Tuner musical was coming to town, I had trepidation and a bit of skepticism. As a theatre and musical lover, I had no choice but to succumb to a new rendition of one of my childhood idol’s life portrayed on the Broadway stage. Would the actress playing Tina measure up? Would she be able to convey this powerhouse of a woman justly? Would the music move me? The answer to all my resounding questions: Absolutely! Tony-nominated actress, Adrienne Warren (Shuffle Along, Bring It On: The Musical) reprises her role of rock legend, Tina Turner; Warren had performed ‘Tina’ in London’s West End this past spring with rave reviews. And, now she’s traveled to New York to shatter all expectations of fans and critics alike. Warren’s portrayal of Tina Turner is sensational. The octaves in her similarly raspy voice to Turner’s are spectacular. Warren interprets Tina’s signature moves with grace, sans mimicry.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan, Steven Booth as Phil Spector, Adrienne Warren as Tina

The musical begins with Warren seated on the stage floor wearing Turner’s iconic red leather dress reciting a Buddhist chant. Turner, a Buddhist since 1973, credits the religion for helping her endure life’s hardships. Then the audience is introduced to a young Tina (given name: Anna-Mae Bullock) played by Skye Dakota Turner masterfully, belting out church songs with fervor in her hometown of Nutbush, Tennessee, where her mother, Zelma, played by the talented Dawnn Lewis (A Different World, This Is Us) isn’t too pleased and constantly scolds her for being to loud and boisterous. At the behest of her grandmother, played by Myra Lucretia Taylor (Macbeth, A Streetcar Named Desire), she pursues her talents as a singer, and moves to St. Louis to be with her mother and sister.

The pacing of the musical is perfection. There are no lulls. We transition through the different phases of Tina’s life with Tina’s hit songs and sets so visually stimulating the rest of your senses have to play catch up! The scenes between Tina and Ike are electrifying. Their chronicled relationship is replete with success and abuse at the hands of Ike Turner played by Daniel J. Watts (Hamilton, The Color Purple). Ike Turner is undoubtedly the villain from what is known about his persona and documented past relationship with Turner. Watts does an excellent job of balancing the complexities of Ike, as the abusive husband, yet talented musician that discovered Anna-Mae Bullock’s talents at 17 years-old, Watts is able to convey this atrocious man, with comedic flair at times, while showcasing his singing and dancing abilities. After all, this is a musical and the tone shouldn’t be too gloomy.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan, Adrienne Warren as Tina, Daniel J. Watts as Ike Turner

Executive produced by Tina Turner, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia, The Taming of the Shrew), and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast (Mamma Mia!, Sister Act) ‘Tina’ is a true gem for biopic and musical aficionados. Run! Don’t walk to see this fantastic production of the Queen of Rock n’ Roll. Tina, The Tina Turner Musical will be on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre through September 2020, for upcoming performances, click here.

 

PRODUCTION: A presentation by Stage Entertainment, James L. Nederlander, Tali Pelman, Feste Investments B.V., David Mirvish, Nattering Way, Teg Dainty, Katori Hall, Mark Rubinstein Ltd., Warner Chappell, Peter May, Eva Price, No Guarantees, Caiola Productions, Jamie DeRoy, Wendy Federman, Roy Furman, Independent Presenters Network, John Gore Organization, Marc Levine, Carl Moellenberg, Al Nocciolino, Catherine Adler, Tom Perakos, Daryl Roth, Iris Smith, Candy Spelling, and Anita Waxman, in association with Tina Turner, of a musical in two acts, with book by Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins), originally produced at the Aldwych Theater in London, by Stage Entertainment, Joop van den Ende and Tali Pelman.
CREATIVE: Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Choreography, Anthony Van Laast. Sets & costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Nevin Steinberg; projections, Jeff Sugg; hair & wigs, Campbell Young Associates; orchestrations, Ethan Popp; musical supervision, arrangements, additional music & conductor, Nicholas Skilbeck; production stage manager, Kristen Harris.
CAST: Adrienne Warren, Dawnn Lewis, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Daniel J. Watts, Steven Booth, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Gerald Caesar, Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Charlie Franklin, Judith Franklin, Matthew Griffin, David Jennings, Ross Lekites, Robert Lenzi, Gloria Manning, Jhardon Dishon Milton, Destinée Rea, Mars Rucker, Jessica Rush, Carla Stewart, Jayden Theophile, Skye Dakota Turner, Antonio J. Watson, Katie Webber.