Tuesday, August 13, 2019

On Point: With Excellent 'Black Ballerina,' Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre Explores World of Classical Dance, Discrimination -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Black Ballerina
a world premiere play with music & dance
by Stephen Fedo and Tim Rhoze
directed by Tim Rhoze
Black Ensemble Theatre, Evanston, IL
Thru August 25
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The unfortunate thing about Black Ballerina--a genuinely terrific original work being staged by Evanston's erstwhile Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre--is that its underlying themes feel, regrettably, all too familar.

The scourge of racism, whether heinously direct or horridly veiled, remains a terrible stain on the USA and beyond.

Certainly, FJT--which focuses on works about the African-American experience--needs to keep bringing audiences shows that reflect the disturbing realities in hopes of furthering enlightenment and facilitating change.

And Black Ballerina--in which the gifted dancer Kara Roseborough plays women who face racial resistance across three generations--may well be the best production I've yet seen at the theater.

Reminiscent of how adroitly they handled the multi-generational narrative of last year's Home on the Lake--which was also a co-production with the Piven Theatre--Fedo & Rhoze cover essentially the 1950s to the present day.

In doing so, they're able to touch upon the strides made by Misty Copeland--who in 2015 became the first African-American woman to become principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre--and long before her, Raven Wilkinson, credited with having been the first African-American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company, in 1955. 

Black Ballerina begins in 1956 with Roseborough as Olivia, dancing up a storm but being told by a ballet administrator (Jen Gorman) that while she loves her athleticism--à la rising track star Wilma Rudolph--the world of ballet is one of "tradition" and "purity."

The setting will then shift, rather abruptly--but Rhoze's direction minimizes confusion--to the present, with Roseborough as Adrienne, the granddaughter of Olivia. She is about to go on an audition and speaks with her mom, Marie (a strong Shariba Rivers), who was also a dancer.

In other scenes, Marie is represented as a child--of Olivia's--by Bijou Carmichael.

Also figuring in are Adrienne's brother Saiku (Eldridge Shannon) and friend Harvey (Brennan Roche), a friend of the adult Marie named Reuben (Zach Finch), a school administrator (Julie Mitre) and a white ballerina named Taylor (Mikey Gray), who attends the same audition as Adrienne.

Daniela Rukin does a fine job as the onstage pianist, dubbed Miss Molly, while the unseen Béa Rashid serves as co-choreographer with Roseborough.

I won't spell out more specifics of the narrative, but as you might guess, across the generations progress is made but not enough.

Though Copeland's success represents achievement--and, to a degree, acceptance--of African-Americans into the rarefied world of elite ballet that Adrienne so wishes, and seemingly deserves, to enter, ugly perceptions, presumptions, insults and quotas remain.

The injustice is abhorrent; the rationalizations archaic.

It's quite moving and with Roseborough's wondrous dancing and fine acting--among all in the cast--the world premiere is remarkably entertaining and insightful as a well-paced one-act.

And that it feels familiar is much more a knock on our society than FJT's undertaking or Fedo & Rhoze's script.

Showcasing the narrow-mindedness within the classical dance arena is fresh yet will remind of many artistic creations chronicling racism and those with the guts to fight it--films Selma, 42 and Hidden Figures readily came to mind for me--and the narrative arc of Black Ballerina is somewhat predictable.

Sadly.

But it excellently adds insight to the challenges many egregiously must face, very much so still today.

Only four performances of Black Ballerina remain; I strongly suggest you see it.

For even if it sounds like a story you've heard before, in various contexts, the battle against bigotry is one that merits much reiteration. 

And always keeping you on your toes.

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