Perfect Duet | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Black Ensemble Theatre

The reeducation of someone who has forgotten the past is the premise of Jackie Taylor and Lephate Cunningham's review of the civil rights movement, Perfect Duet. "Here it is 1992," the man with the short memory exclaims, "and you're still singing about 'Freedom.' Stop living in the past!" His companions, after declaring him "blind to reality," proceed to remind him of the struggles that achieved the rights and privileges his people now possess--and of the struggles still to come.

On a bare stage decorated with only a few platforms and stools, the six Black Ensemble Theatre members construct a survey of events, beginning in the mid-50s with the integration of the public schools and Rosa Parks's bus ride through Montgomery. This is accomplished through songs of the era: Sam Cooke's "Change Is Gonna Come"; Ben E. King's "Stand By Me"; and, somewhat surprisingly, Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati's "People Got to Be Free" (Cavaliere and Brigati, members of the Rascals, declared in 1968 that they wouldn't play at any concert that didn't include at least one black act).

There are also first-person monologues. "When I was alive, my name was Emmett Till," a young man announces, drawing a murmur of recognition from the audience. Other portraits include one of the four children killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, a student participating in her first sit-in (at a Woolworth's lunch counter, where hostile bystanders spit on her, throw food at her, and burn her with cigarettes), and a black businessman who disapproves of the protesters' actions until he witnesses a demonstration in which attack dogs and fire hoses "so powerful they tore the bark from the trees" were used on the crowds. A group piece depicts the panic that grips a busload of freedom riders who discover their media escort has deserted them and they are at the mercy of their attackers. Dividing the various episodes are the stirring words of Dr. Martin Luther King making his pleas for progress with compassion. "As a race, we must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship, but we must never use second-class methods to gain it," he stresses, advice endorsed enthusiastically by shouts of "Amen" and "Allah" from the audience.

The Perfect Duet ensemble is made up of energetic, talented men and women. Cliff Frazier's age relegates him to the character roles, but his powerful baritone and glowing face hold attention during his two solo vocals (he also does a slick camel walk during his spirited rendition of James Brown's "Say It Loud--I'm Black & I'm Proud"). No less compelling are Sandra McCullough's bell-tone contralto, Sanetta Gipson's gospel-tinged soprano, and Mark Townsend's satin-smooth tenor. Daniel J. Bryant delivers a sensitive portrayal of a demonstration leader fighting to keep his troops from despair, and also shares a sweet pas de deux with Teresa Blake. Dominating the action, however, is Darryl Reed, portraying the Reverend King with dignity and uncaricatured zeal.

Perfect Duet could stand to shave about 15 minutes off its running time--the many perky, Sesame Street-style mini-raps bridging the scenes tend to fragment the action--but director Jackie Taylor and musical director Jimmy Tillman keep the tempo sprightly and the emotions clear.

I left the theater knowing many things I didn't know before and several things I had forgotten--the harmony of the past and the present, the "perfect duet" of the title, isn't easy to sustain. Still, I hope this production will reach audiences beyond the already converted.

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