Style & Grace pays tribute to Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Style & Grace pays tribute to Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson 

Black Ensemble Theater’s latest bio-musical tells the stories of two great jazz divas.

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Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson were two iconic voices, separated by a generation, divergent upbringings, and dramatically different perceptions of their own talent and self-worth. What ties them together are their soulful style, deep connection with their audiences, and strength in the face of an industry that didn't evolve quickly enough to give them the respect and compensation they deserved.

This rousing production is Black Ensemble Theater's new associate director Kylah Frye's debut as writer and director, and it packs a musical punch, going heavy on music and lighter on story and historical facts. A rollicking live band sets the tone, warming up the crowd for the string of classic hits to come. Then the Lenas and Nancys are introduced—young Lena (Aeriel Williams) and mature Lena (Chantee Joy) kick things off with a performance of Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose," followed by young Nancy (Jayla Williams Craig) and mature Nancy (Rhonda Preston) singing Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll." These early songs give a taste of the outstanding vocal performances to come, which are punctuated by narration that could use some work.

Co-hosts Vincent Jordan and Kelvin Davis are responsible for driving the story forward with biographical facts and comparisons between Horne and Wilson's life choices; there are some goofy meta moments (bickering among all four women) that could be trimmed. We learn that after an unstable childhood, Horne was pushed into show business by her mother, a failed actress, and had little confidence in her abilities or her place on larger stages. Wilson, on the other hand, had a middle-class childhood and an innate sense of her own talent, demonstrating it to wide audiences by age 15 on a local TV station in her native Ohio. There could be more exploration here, especially in act two, of the long-term effects of these differing motivations as well as each woman's ability to navigate or fall prey to the challenges of being an African American woman in a manipulative industry run by white men.

Self-determination is a running theme throughout, with Horne's mother, Edna, telling her, "Nobody can own you for life" after she breaks her exploitative Cotton Club contract. Both women's activism is hinted at, especially Horne's efforts to change the way African American characters were portrayed in Hollywood, but where we see them truly break the barriers of time, space, and society is the vocal performances. Although more cohesive mannerisms could help with character consistency, Williams and Joy shine in emotive songs like "Stormy Weather" and "Believe in Yourself," respectively. Craig and Preston are pure diva in Wilson's songs—Craig with a twinkle in her eye during "Guess Who I Saw Today" and Preston bringing down the house during "You Don't Know How Glad I Am."   v

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