The Black Ensemble’s The Other Cinderella is an African American take on the classic Cinderella story, within the context of Chicago’s ‘hood.’ Written and Directed by Jackie Taylor, with music direction by Robert Redderick, this version of the story is filled with humor, fun, and a whole lot of silliness.
One thing especially innovative in this production was the approach of Cinderella. Rather than play the usual passive character quietly accepting her fate and secretly hoping to escape, this Cinderella, played by Candace Edwards, had an energy and rambunctiousness that makes the audience empathize with her more than the standard Cinderella. She had a bit more pizzazz and spunk that added depth to her character. She openly resisted her family and wasn’t afraid to get-down on the dance floor. Another strength to the show is the run-up to the ending---dramatically different than the classic Cinderella story, this new ending added excitement and mystique to the show. However, while I expected the story to be more dissimilar from the over-done, everyone-knows- version of Cinderella, I found the storyline to ultimately be more run-of-the mill, which was a bit of a disappointment. Despite references to Chicago’s Westside, Southside, and “the hood,” the premise of the story still involves a hapless Cinderella, her evil stepmom and stepsisters, and a prince in need of a princess. I was personally looking for something a little more in tune with the word “other,” as the title suggested but did not fully sense that from the show.
The two stepsisters and stepmom were very fun to watch! Rhonda Preston (stepmother), the “cougar” of the group played the role strongly and boldly. Her character was not your typical evil, stay-at-home stepmother but rather a working woman (a post-office currier, to be exact) who, too was in love with the prince. When she walked onstage she effortlessly grabbed the audience’s attention and played her desire for the prince so effortlessly and cunningly that it was both far-fetched and believable at the same time. The two stepsisters, played by Robin Beaman and Katrina Miller, were also a hoot. Their very different, outlandish and animated characters were good foils for each other and played a well-needed contrast to the more serious Cinderella.
While I enjoyed the songs and music, I found the acting to be a bit under par. Some of the characters seemed to act in a way they thought the character should act, rather than truly become the character. From my standpoint, this ultimately created more of a caricature than an actual real person. However, the fairy godmother from the Caribbean, played by Deja Taylor, brought a particular creative element to her part and was oh-so-fun to watch.
The Paige ( Rueben Echoles) also stood out---his comedy and energy brought a fresh air of vitality to the play, even though at times the silliness was on the verge of obnoxiousness. He clearly had fun playing the part, and that internal fun ran contagious with the audience.
The band playing above the stage was also fabulous; the music and lyrics were innovative and lively and often emitted a funky hip-hop and blues vibe.
One aspect of the show I particularly appreciated was the social issues The Other Cinderella brought up and attempted to address, remarkable for an otherwise primarily comedic farcical musical. One particular song, Look at Me addressed the fact that color ought not interfere with true love, color not referring to black vs white but rather dark black vs white black. Such an issue was rather unbeknownst to me beforehand so I learned something relevant affecting the African American community, not in a didactic fashion but rather in a seamless and organic way. Additionally, as one of the few white members of the audience, I found I could appreciate much of the humor and jokes relating to the African Amercian community, though I imagine such jokes and stereotypes would resonate more with the African American members of the audience. From references to White Castle, fried chicken, collared greens, and knowing how to get-down (dancing, that is!), there was an air of light-heartedness and fun that surrounded these stereotypes.
In addition to the social issues the play incorporated, I also enjoyed the modern elements added in. The fairy godmother’s chariot driver for Cinderella is not a couplet of white horses or a butler-like figure in shiny white gloves; rather he is Flavor Flav, Usher, and Denzel Washington, all-in-one! The stepsisters sang and shook their booties to Beyonce’s All the Single Ladies… upon receiving their invitation to the prince’s ball, and the boys in the hood, Goundhog ( Daniel Simmons) and Peanut Butter ( Joshua N. Banks) rapped to the song Pretty boy Swag upon leaving the hood and entering the wealthy kingdom. All these modern, pop-culture elements made the play more relevant and contemporary, and added a great deal of humor to the show. I should note, however, that I say this as one from the current, young, in-their-20’s generation, though looking at the audience’s reaction, it seemed most of the modern pop references were still well-taken by all members of the audience.
The overall Cinderella story created many decades ago is a bit overly idealistic and opportunistic, leading viewers apt to believe that through sheer hope and luck, one can escape one’s own oppression and find a Prince Charming. This modern version of the play follows that same logic, but allows that story to go down a different, more modern path and set within the streets of our very own Chicago. While at times I found the show to be overly unrealistic and outlandish, I enjoyed the new elements The Black Ensemble incorporated into the story, and I appreciated the color and life of this particular version of the tale.
Black Ensemble Theater
4520 N. Beacon Street, Chicago IL 60640
Friday and Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 3pm
Photos by Danny Nicholas
Published on Dec 21, 2010