Firebrand Theatre's JUKE JOINT Review - an evening of gritty blues performed by some of Chicago’s best female talent

Going to an authentic, Deep South Juke Joint should be on any music lovers bucket list.  The definition of a juke joint is an informal establishment featuring music, dancing, gambling, and drinking, primarily in the South.  For those that don’t get to the Deep South much, Firebrand Theater and Director Lili-Anne Brown decided to bring this tradition north to Chicago.  According to Brown, “The Juke Joint is where you can go and get yourself a drink or four, and hear some low-down, gutbucket musical truth. You'll want to dance a dirty boogie, or testify, or both.”  Amen.

This Juke Joint featured an all female line-up of powerhouse singers

Firebrand Theater’s mission is to empower women in musical theatre, so this Juke Joint featured an all female line-up of powerhouse singers:  Angela Alise, Karla Beard, Elisa Carlson, Sydney Charles, Rashada Dawan, Sharriese Hamilton, Donica Lynn, Meghan Murphy, Alexis J. Rogers, Bethany Thomas, and Lina Wass.  Hosted by JC Brooks, the eleven singers took turns on stage with the backing of musical director Jimmy Morehead and his incredible band.  Each chose songs to highlight women’s empowerment while keeping to the “low-down, gutbucket” Juke Joint tradition.  Those two elements combined together to provide a combustible environment that was rip roaring fun.  The audience couldn’t help but stomp their feet, clap their hands and holler during the songs. 

Highlighting the best songs is a disservice to the night since every performance was outstanding.  I wish I could write about each song, but I have limited space, so here are some of my favorites:

Bethany Thomas was not to be messed with

The night got started with Bethany Thomas singing Amy Winehouse’s “Me & Mr. Jones.”  I believe that Winehouse herself would have loved this performance.  It was smooth with a signature swingy beat.  Thomas displayed her powerful voice which contained the attitude that a Winehouse song requires.  When she belted “You don’t mean #$*% to me, but I might let you make it up to me” everyone in the room understood that Bethany Thomas was not to be messed with.

Alexis J. Rogers came on to get things sexy

Later in the set, Alexis J. Rogers came on to get things sexy.  Her version of the standard “Rock Me Baby” got everyone in the room hot under the collar.  The performance showed a woman in control of her sexuality.  She was confident and knew exactly what she wanted.  Rogers also grooved her hips on stage just in case there was still any confusion about what she was talking about.  This performance is what I imagine the scene is like in a real juke joint somewhere in the Mississippi Delta.

Wass had amazing control of “Love to Love You Less”

Then Lina Wass stepped on stage to sing “Love to Love You Less” by Nikki Costa.  It was slow and full of emotion.  Wass had amazing control of the song.  The highlight came when she emphasized the lyrics “I’m stuck with you” by putting her hand on her pregnant baby bump.  The small gesture gave added meaning to the already passionate song.

Sydney Charles and Sharriese Hamilton performed “Switch”

Next it was time for a little TLC:  Sydney Charles and Sharriese Hamilton performed “Switch.”  This version was less poppy than the original TLC hit and more bluesy – a great musical choice.  Charles was as cool as T-Boz during the song and then Hamilton surprised everyone by, in host JC Brook’s words, “resurrecting Left Eye” and nailing the rap verse in the song.  It was a fun version that got a big reaction from the crowd gathered.

Donica Lynn brought down the house

To close out the show, Donica Lynn performed “I’d Rather Go Blind.”  Which is originally an Etta James song, but this version was done “Beyonce-style”.  Beyonce is hard to imitate but Lynn more than held her own and brought down the house.  She mixed in a few Beyonce “Lemonade” lyrics and, in between singing, broke down the importance of women: “we bear the fruit and raise the fruit.”  There is nothing greater than that.

Visiting Firebrand Theater’s Juke Joint and hearing the dynamic women singing their hearts out was as close to being in an authentic Juke Joint you can be without actually crossing the Mason-Dixon line.  The fact that the songs they picked out meant something to them added feeling to the night.  It was a beautiful mix of talent, emotion, and energy. 

For more information about Firebrand Theater click here

Photos by K. Joseph Fotos.  Website Here.






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