Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Ain’t No Crying The Blues (In The Memory Of Howlin’ Wolf)
June 16, 2013
(runs through August 11)
Black Ensemble Theater
By Dawn O’Keefe Williams
P hotos: Danny Nicholas
hotos: Danny Nicholas
Producer/writer/director Jackie Taylor’s musical bio of Howlin’ Wolf , Ain’t No Crying the Blues (In the Memory of Howlin’ Wolf) is a brilliantly conceived play that brings to the Black Ensemble stage the life journey of Chester Arthur Burnett (a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf), with actor Rick Stone in the title role. Ain’t No Cryin’ The Blues is a celebration, wrapped in the mists of Wolf’s memories, and the recollections of those who were a part of his life.
Jackie Taylor skillfully unwinds the layers of his childhood and his life experiences, showing us how he grew to become the great bluesman, Howlin’ Wolf. The play informs us that he was not only a legendary performer but a songwriter as well. We also learn that Wolf was a savvy businessman with an understanding of how to save for when you’re “too old to play”. In one scene, the elder musician explains payroll tax deductions to his young guitar player, Hubert Sumlin, who looked upon Wolf as a father figure.
The play opens inside a blues club with a phenomenal five-piece band playing an up-tempo shuffle featuring some of the most stellar musicians in the Chicago area. Multi-talented musical director Robert Reddrick serves many roles: arranger, drummer, singer and actor. There’s Herb Walker, who is one of Chicago’s finest blues and R&B guitarists. Also in the band are two more incredible guitarists, Oscar “Joose” Brown, Jr., and actor Rashawn Thompson, who portrays a young Hubert Sumlin (joining the band later in the play). The quintet also includes Mark Moultrup on keys and bassist Tracey Anita Baker. Audience participation was just like being in a blues club when Wolf demanded you respond to him or had the ladies come up and dance with him. Later on, patrons in the audience were howling like the “Wolf” without any cajoling from the actors because they were having so much fun! Throughout the play, nineteen classic blues songs were performed including Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” “Spoonful,” “ Back Door Man,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Sittin’ On Top of the World” and more.
Rick Stone, made his debut in the film Cooley High and also performed as Howlin’ Wolf in a previous Black Ensemble play. He is a master at expressing emotion without saying a word. During one scene in which characters from the past reminisce about a part of his life that was difficult, Rick quietly sat on a stool as the other actors portrayed a young Chester Burnett. You could see the pain on Stone’s face and you felt it, too, even though the focus was on the other actor.
Kylah Williams is almost a twin of Wolf’s wife, Lilly. She is excellent at portraying the quiet and demure, yet strong, spouse. Dwight Neal, who plays Muddy Waters did a wonderful portrayal down to Muddy’s pronunciations of certain words when he sang. The rivalry between Muddy and Wolf plays itself out with an interesting showdown of a medley between the two men, each performing one of their famous songs: “Mannish Boy” and “Back Door Man”.
Ain’t No Cryin’ The Blues takes you through all of the emotions of a struggling young man who overcame cruel obstacles. We watch as Wolf moves through pain, love and heartache; we see him eventually triumph over adversity to achieve success. The production is joyous, heartfelt, extremely well-written, directed and produced. It gives you a peek at what it was like to be in a blues club during his heyday. And Rick Stone has all of Howlin’ Wolf’s physicality down pat, including dead-on facial expressions, gut-wrenching singing, howling and vocal inflections. He employs one of The Wolf’s famous moves by crawling across the floor on all fours.
Taylor knows how to cleverly introduce songs into the play that contain adult innuendoes, without offending families with children. The double entendre number “about a chair”, “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Sit Down On It,” features Cynthia F. Carter, Rick Stone’s sister. Cynthia builds up the story with a strong presence and then belts out the song. Claudia Alexander does a great job singing “Hound Dog,” as well as performing another character as a jealous wife in a blues club.
The entire cast is triple threats with their dancing, singing and acting. The quality of their performances brought the show to a very high level. Each member stood out with their exuberance and with the joy that they expressed as they sang and danced. One member, Raymond Wise, even did the splits!
With Ain’t No Cryin’ The Blues, Jackie Taylor brings blues fans a real gift by recreating the history and memoirs of one of the true fathers of the blues, along with other important figures like Muddy Waters and Hubert Sumlin. More than delightful entertainment, this story of Howlin’ Wolf also conveys a poignant message. Howlin’ Wolf’s character wisely says: “as long as you have memories of the person here (touches his head) and here (touches his heart) they will stay alive forever.” Larger than life legends like Howlin’ Wolf won’t soon be forgotten, thanks to wonderful plays like this.
For tickets & info:
For tickets & info: www.blackensemble.org