Great Nitty Gritty, at the South Shore Cultural Center. Oscar Brown Jr.'s musical "edu-tainment" toured Chicago schools in 1982 before expanding into a full-scale production in 1983. Twenty years later its message is no less immediate: in a world of pain, squalor, and violence, too many young people are doomed to untimely deaths--and not even the statue of Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable stepping down from its pedestal can change that. In its 90 minutes of song and dance, Great Nitty Gritty presents us with a panorama of gangbangers, teenage mothers, Afrocentric protesters, camera-wielding tourists, prostitutes, drunks, and junkies before arriving at the funeral of the slain Willie Boy, where our city's founder reminds us we can all do better.
The 40 teenage ensemble members, drawn from Gallery 37 and After School Matters, embrace their roles to generate a kaleidoscopic pageant that transcends the harsh topics (though the acoustics at the South Shore Cultural Center tend to blur the song lyrics). Running for only two more weekends, this vibrant spectacle is anchored by Ben "Mechanical Man" Sexton as the DuSable statue (remarkably, he held his pose for 40 minutes the night I attended). A live jazz combo seamlessly underscores the performances, and choreographer Amaniyea Payne provides exuberant dances and Talisa Hopkins thrilling solo vocals (though Richard Denton as a loose-limbed wino all but steals the show).