Black Ensemble Theater’s The Healing is saved by the audience | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Black Ensemble Theater’s The Healing is saved by the audience

Jackie Taylor mixes history, personal essay, racial justice, and music to mixed effect.


UPDATE Friday, March 13: this event has been postponed. Contact box office for more information.

Entering the Black Ensemble Theater, home to a company with the mission of eradicating racism, theatergoers are offered refrains of "Welcome to the Healing." That's the title of the opening number of Jackie Taylor's The Healing. It's an invitation to confront racism; the cast of ten warns of uncomfortable content, urging viewers to get angry and to cry, but to eventually complete the journey in a place of love. It's a noble goal, but the trouble is, they never provide space for all that to happen.

The Healing does two things: it provides a history lesson in Black oppression and triumph, and it showcases some incredible singers. Both are great, but a lack of smooth transition means that the latter always overshadows the former, making for abrupt tonal switches and highlighting the lack of a uniting thread throughout the show. It needs to narrow its focus, too, since the blunt inclusion of the Holocaust, Indigenous genocide, border conflicts, and more only serve to muddy the sharpness of Black Ensemble Theater's argument. It's the gospel-style music that defines the show, highlighting Guides Dwight Neal and Dawn Bless—his easy belting and her jaw-dropping scatting and riffing. Well-known songs are such crowd-pleasers that watching the audience sing and dance along was as enjoyable as watching the musical itself.

Ensemble member MJ Rawls deserves a mention, too, for her narrative monologue. I was willing to forgive the awkward departure from the structure of the musical in exchange for the privilege of seeing an entire audience applaud a trans woman of color for telling her story on stage.

Perhaps I wouldn't call this show a musical, but instead a combination history lecture, racial justice workshop, personal essay, and musical revue with lackluster choreography, using storytelling elements strangely reminiscent of John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, although the tones could not be further apart. As a whole, The Healing feels like it's in the early stages of being something great. If you're a fan of joining a lively audience to enjoy some exceptional vocalists—and you don't mind a work in progress—it's worth seeing.  v

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