ELVIS Presley WAS A BLACK MAN, Black Ensemble Theater. Maybe he was. Though Jackie Taylor--who wrote, directed, and choreographed this two-hour homage--is not talking about "the color of his skin but the hue of his soul," as one of her characters puts it. Taylor is less interested in Elvis's admitted debt to African-American culture than she is in how much he affected her and her brother growing up in the Chicago projects in the 1960s--and why.
This moving if sometimes awkwardly staged show leaps back and forth between autobiographical sketches from Taylor's childhood (notably her brother's spot-on impersonations of the King) and superb re-creations of some of Elvis's hits, including "Return to Sender," "Hound Dog," and "Jailhouse Rock." As we've come to expect from the company that brought us Doo Wop Shoo Bop, the musical portion of the show, under the direction of Jimmy Tillman, is incredible.
By comparison Taylor's staged memories are little more than brief diversions, a fact even she seems to acknowledge as her memoir gives way to a full-out 50s rock show, complete with dead-on impersonations of Fats Domino (John Steven Crowley), Chuck Berry (Bemaji Tillman), and Little Richard (the fabulous Tony Duwon). The production also includes a few speeches about racial harmony and the danger of life on the streets; these preachy, maudlin bits would have been more annoying if they hadn't been followed immediately by kick-ass rock 'n' roll. --Jack Helbig