In “Grandma’s Jukebox,” director and playwright Michelle Renee Bester creates a double celebration. For one, the Black Ensemble Theater production running until June 26 packs some 15 songs from a multitude of genres into a 90-minute staging. From gospel to Motown to disco, Michael Jackson to the “Thriller” era and beyond, Bester pays great homage to the almighty powers of timeless, groundbreaking tunes that have spanned generations.
On the other hand, Bester didn’t just title his piece “Jukebox.” While the titular grandmother is only seen as a framed photo, she’s also celebrated throughout, with the music coming in the context of four cousins reminiscing, mourning and paying homage to their beloved matriarch.
Things start slow, as Jessica (Jessica Brooke Seals) sweeps red Solo paper cups and plates, at first quietly, eventually sending the rich, an a cappella chorus of the anthem “It’s Well” through the stage and up to the skies. As Seals progresses through the number, the mood is dark, respectful, and feels like it’s about to be revealed.
We learn that we are at a post-burial meeting where Grandma’s four grandchildren and the family lawyer have gathered to read the will. After cleaning up after the meal hosted in honor of their grandmother, Jessica and her cousins Mikey (Blake Reasoner), Chris (Vincent Jordan) and Parker (Aeriel Williams) wait to hear from the attorney (J. Michael Wright) read the will.
When Bester’s script is overtaken by the music, it’s at its peak. Otherwise, the dialogue reduces the cousins to a few defining crises: Jordan plays a bright, ambitious young man who desperately wants to honor his grandmother by forging a career that leaves behind the mistakes of his youth forever. Reasoner plays an aspiring musician struggling with the terrifying abuse he suffered as a child. Seals stars as a woman in an abusive marriage, crippled to inaction by the dire financial situation she would find herself in if she left. Williams, meanwhile, is the soft-spoken, sometimes childish cousin who discovers the magic of that deceptively indescribable jukebox shining against the living room wall (nice retro furniture by decorator Bek Lambrecht).
As the lawyer explains to the group, Grandma’s will stipulates that the cousins must engage in family therapy before they can obtain their inheritance. It is quickly and absurdly decided that the family lawyer will also serve as the family therapist/mediator. Aside from this deeply dubious bit of professionalism (mediation and therapy are not synonymous; if your lawyer insists that he can be the family therapist as well as his lawyer, you need a new lawyer), the framework allows the audience to quickly learn the broad strokes of each cousin’s struggles.
When it comes to singing, Bester’s ensemble has the belt, passion and harmonic precision of a rock and soul-inspired Seraph choir – and that more than makes up for any flaws in the production.
Seals sets the bar with this glorious opener, reaffirming her vocal prowess much later in a searing version of Mary J. Blige’s hit “No More Drama.” When Reasoner slips into Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” the energy and spark are enough to catapult audiences straight back to the early 1980s (so will those lucky enough to remember that time when “Thriller” fell.) On Wonder’s Stevie “I Wish,” Jordan does the songwriting pride, filling the song with joy even as the lyrics speak of a time long gone.
Williams knocks it out of the park with a moving, soaring rendition of “I’ll Be There” (written by Barry Gordy, Bob West, Hal Davis and Willie Hutch). And when the whole band comes together for “Before I Let Go” (written by Frankie Beverly), the sound is both arena rock and cathedral choir.
As usual at BET’s spacious Ravenswood Theater, the band on stage is a band that knows their stuff. For “Grandma’s Jukebox,” musical director Robert Reddrick enlisted bandleader/guitarist Oscar Brown Jr., Adam Sherrod (keyboard), Mark Miller (bass), and Myron Cherry (drums). Perched on a platform above the stage, the group nimbly shifts between styles with a fluidity that makes it feel effortless.
As an expression of grief and celebration, the music of “Grandma’s Jukebox” strikes a powerful chord.