CAN I GET AN AMEN!
You can't trick an audience into feeling good. A show that tries usually gets caught in the act--exposed by its drooling eagerness to please and shameless stooping to conquer.
Fortunately, the Black Ensemble's Can I Get an Amen! is no artificial "feel-good" show. Lovingly assembled, performed, and produced, this pastiche of poems and songs is, like Rollin' With Stevens and Stewart, a testimony to African American resilience despite hard times.
It's also a showcase for the talents of Leon Brown, a triple-threat dancer, singer, and actor in such Ensemble shows as Muddy Waters (The Hoochie Coochie Man), Anna Lucasta, and The Other Cinderella. Exuding a contagious confidence, Brown is a smooth artist with a cunning smile and piercing eyes. As cool as Brown plays things onstage, he can also turn up the heat on a poem or song. On top of this, he dances: copying the undulating arms and joyous stretches of Alvin Ailey, Brown performs his own choreography to Quincy Jones's score from Roots and a vocal solo from The Gospel at Colonus.
With supple support from Donald Wright on keyboards and musical director Jimmy Tillman on percussion, Can I Get an Amen! plays rich variations on a theme of affirmation; its tapestry of verse and music celebrates much more than survival. Jazzy gospel anthems like "Something Got a Hold on Me" and Dottie Rambo's "We Shall Behold Him" mingle with more standard musical uplift; in the latter, Brown's soul singing stretches conventional hymns like "How Great Thou Art" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" both temporally and emotionally, then he snaps back the tempo to turn them into clap-along crowd pleasers. In his best moment, Brown builds Stephen L. Hayes's "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" into a prayer of notes.
The 20 poems, written by such lights as Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, range in flavor from the excitement of a sing-along Sunday social to the anger spawned by daily insults. Though the selections don't always flow easily from one to the other, these musicians can smooth over even the most abrupt transitions.
Most poems focus on the unsung feats of lost black generations. You can hear a testament in James Weldon Johnson's exuberant version of the Creation myth, an ecstatic improvement on the Genesis original that puts us up there with God. Hughes is represented by his famous prophecy in "Dream Deferred," as well as by other poems. His lesser-known "Listen Folks" and "Notes for a Commercial Theater" are powerful pleas for an all-embracing people's theater, of which Can I Get an Amen! is certainly a part.
Two poems by Dunbar elicit Brown's most intense readings. They reveal the emotional range of this 19th-century writer. "When Dey 'Listed Colored Soldiers" is the spare, poignant tale of the unremarked sacrifice of Elias, a kid who died in the Civil War for better reasons than most soldiers: his people's freedom. "We Wear the Mask" is a burning variation on Ralph Ellison's theme of invisibility, though in Dunbar's reading invisibility seems more a matter of survival than a symptom of American apartheid.
Brown contributes some of his own poetry, including a sardonic spoof of a venal, opportunistic slave overseer, the rhapsodic escape fantasies of a troubled child (which Brown also dances to Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child"), and an appeal that seems to come from the children themselves (the refrain is "the loudest scream you will never hear"). Brown pursues the theme of children in crisis in his elegiac "Papa," performed by 17-year-old Kareem Dale, a boy's remembrance of the proud father whose sole legacy was pride.
Sophelian Belcher depicts a hapless mother's plight in "I Can't Feed You Today," an agonizing piece written by Black Ensemble artistic director Jackie Taylor. She also contributed the show's exuberant title song and a catchy sing-along chorus called "Lord Knows We Got Problems." Taylor brings equal intensity to her staging: Can I Get an Amen! is powered by the same verve and graced by the same intimacy that Taylor brings to her solo shows. There's little forced feeling and much of the real thing in Brown and Taylor's unsentimental revue, and at 70 minutes it never overstays its welcome.