In case you missed out on last week’s Blues Fest, the Black Ensemble Theater is offering another chance to catch up on the blues in Ain’t No Crying The Blues (In The Memory of Howlin Wolf). Offering up just a tad more story than does The Million Dollar Quartet, Ain’t No Crying The Blues presents the life of one Chester Burnett (A.K.A. Howlin’ Wolf) through recollections and a whole lot of singing and dancing. Rick Stone, who starred in the 2003 production, reprises his role as the title character.
One disadvantage in telling the story of Howlin’ Wolf is that by bluesman standards, he had it pretty good. A steady performer most of his life he made a good living and by all accounts was a faithful husband and parent to his two step daughters. Sure he had a difficult childhood complete with an abandonment by his mother, but where is the drug addiction, the infidelities, and the raging ego? There is some tension in his very public feud with Muddy Waters (Dwight Neal), but Howlin’ Wolf, as performed by Rick Stone, appears nothing so much as a likeable and gifted performer you would love to have as your neighbor. It is to the credit then of Jackie Taylor (founder of the BET and writer of the script) and director Rueben Echoles that the play focuses primarily on Howlins’ music.
This type of play then can only be as good as the performers and boy are they something to watch. Backed up brilliantly by the BET house band (which is directed by Robert Reddick) the music here feels as raw as if it came out of a smoky Chicago Blues Club. And Rick Stone’s performance as Howlin’ was nothing short of masterful as he swaggered, sung, and duck walked his way over the stage like it was his to own. Never once out of character, Rick Stone appeared to put it all on stage and the show was better for it. Equally strong performances were also delivered by ensemble members Rashawn Thompson (as veteran blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin) and Cynthia F. Carter (whose overtly sexy rendition of If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Sit on It was worth the price of admission by itself).
Attending the theater on the day of my review were Chester Burnett’s two daughters as well as other members of both Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf’s extended family. Their presence, along with a few known blues musicians, provided some added emotional weight. Leaving the play I was thankful to be living in a city that played such an important part in the story of the blues. This production continues that tradition.
Bottom line: Ain’t No Crying The Blues (In The Memory of Howlin Wolf) is highly recommended. It is currently playing at the Black Ensemble Theater (4450 N. Clark) Wednesday to Sunday (twice on Saturday) through August 11th. Tickets range from $55 to $65 with a 10% discount available for students, seniors, and groups. To purchase tickets or for more information, click here: httblackensembletheater.org/aint-no-crying-the-blues?gclid=CLTt28Sg2LcCFSJlMgoddycATg . For more theater information and reviews, go to theaterinchicago.com .
Photos by Danny Nicholas