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Theater: Memphis Soul,The Story of Stax Records
2007-04-18

This article shared 4359 times since Wed Apr 18, 2007
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Playwright: David Barr III

At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon

Phone: 773-769-4451; $40

Runs through: May 13

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

Motown may have boasted the sleek crossover hits of the 1960s, their popularity boosted by mainstream—i.e. white—vocalists' covers, but the Stax sound was the icon for pop musicians of all races, lead guitarists or combo-compact organists in pasty-faced Beatles-style quartets valiantly aping saxophone and trumpet solos in a vain attempt to tap into the visceral energy of the shouters from Memphis—the midpoint between New Orleans and Detroit—where blues, gospel and hillbilly music all merged in the Mississippi mud to produce a new and distinctively American art form.

From 1960 to 1975, the record company founded by a pair of country- western siblings charted hit after hit by such immortals as Otis Redding; Rufus and Carla Thomas; Isaac Hayes; Eddie Floyd; Johnny Taylor; Sam and Dave; Booker T. and the MGs; and The Staples Singers. Now, Chicago playwright David Barr III teams up with Jackie Taylor's Black Ensemble to pay homage to the stars of the short-lived but historically-significant label.

These are framed in a fictional 1980 reunion concert, emceed by Rufus Thomas, who swaps green-room reminiscences with former confréres often ambivalent about their experiences, but back again, nevertheless. ( Sam Moore and Dave Prater bicker to the point of physical confrontation, only seconds before charging onstage to swap harmonies in perfect unity. ) But it's not all show-biz chat: Barr also introduces us to the owners of the bar-and-grill across the street from the studios, whose concerns over the passing of the Stax heyday and its influence on the neighborhood—reflecting on the national temper during those troubled times—lend context to its legacy.

But what we notice first when the lights come up is that musical director Jimmy Tillman's drums, flanked by the usual guitars and keyboards, occupy only half the bandstand, the other half staked down by a dazzling phalanx of brass instruments. Later in the tidy two-hour evening, we will hear Toi Overton's Mavis Staples exhort us to Respect Yourself, Dwayne Lonzo's Isaac Hayes praise the hero called Shaft and see Rick Stone, playing the funky-chicken man Thomas, cajole brave anglo males into joining him in 'walking the dog' ( to the delight of the multiethnic audience ) . But even before then, by the time the overture has finished heralding our host's entrance, swooping down the aisle in a white satin cape, we are ready to follow these modern-day Gabriels wherever they may take us.


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