Great Women in Gospel | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Great Women in Gospel 

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Great Women in Gospel, Black Ensemble Theater. This is an "awake and sing" for gospel enthusiasts, believers and nonbelievers alike: the Black Ensemble cast gives a two-hour tour, written and directed by Jackie Taylor and shaped into extraordinary music by Jimmy Tillman. Celebrating the songs and stories of gospel's women preachers, composers, singers, publishers, and organizers, the piece is more an invocation of the ancestors than a detailed history. The spirit of love, its endurance and triumph, energizes the tribute's feminist pride in women's accomplishments and courage in the face of sexism, a strength told more powerfully in the songs than in the rhymed stories that provide the historical framework for the revue.

Taylor's politics are charged with community purpose; her singers preach for men to join women as equals and loved ones. The performance also has a community feeling, with audience members clapping, singing, weeping, and amen-ing--a vital participatory answer to Taylor and Tillman's challenge. And despite the amateur feel of the choreography, the singers give the songs the heart they need to keep the energy high. Standout performances by Sandra Bowen, Audrey "Qween" Roy, and Shirley Wahls blend powerfully with the enthusiasm and virtuosic singing of the entire cast. I'm not a Christian, but I felt the rush of the gospel spirit in this straightforward evangelical celebration of the musical force of black women in history.

--Carol Burbank

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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