Nov 03 – Nov 16, 2022
The welcoming songs along with the music in the play, the acting, setting, and costuming held the simple script together.
Above, Dwight Neal as Muddy Waters. Cover photo of Miciah Lathan as Big Mama Thornton.
Photos by Alan Davis.
Walking into the Black Ensemble Theater to a recording of Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” set the stage before I had a chance to sit down. The welcoming songs along with the music in the play, the acting, setting, and costuming held the simple script together. The storyline was meek, but much better and more informative than the small talk you often get from music stars who feel the need to talk to their audience between the songs ticket payers came to hear.
The play centered around blues legends Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Stevie Ray Vaughan waiting to assist Riley (B.B.) King, at the pearly gates of heaven. To help him with his transition, they each tell a bit about their lives, what experiences gave them the empathy to sing the blues, and how they had to forgive themselves. Again, the biographical sketches smelled good, but the performances they gave between the bio-snippets were delicious!
As much as I love B.B. King in life, Willa Mae (Big Mama) Thorton (Miciah Lathan) was my favorite in Blue Heaven. She said that people calling her a bodagger or Elvis Pressley having the opportunity to gain more fame and money than she when recording “Hound Dog” were not her most tragic experiences.
The most painful event was witnessing on Christmas Day 1954, fellow performer Johnny Ace accidentally killing himself while playing with a .22 pistol. She told Riley and the boys sitting at the beautifully crafted juke joint, Pearly Gates, she had to learn to forgive herself for not stopping him from playing with the gun.
Though the performances were super grand, there were morsels of talk worth repeating including Steve Ray Vaughn (Billy Rude) saying that since alcohol can be your worst enemy, “Good, they say in the Bible love your enemy.” It was also hard, very hard to tell if all the performers were really playing their instruments or just acting. We were told Rude’s was a live performance including his playing the guitar strapped to his back.
Writer/Director Daryl D. Brooks writes that “Blue Heaven” takes a look at the process through the lens of forgiveness – one of the most powerful gifts we as human possess.” With that, we can say Wang, Dang Doodle, Amen.
Note: Performances through November 27. You may double-check, but we believe street parking around the North Side Chicago venue is free on Sundays. Valet parking is $10.