Expertly Choreographed “Once Upon a People” Lacks Depth
By Melody Udell
As a theater fan, the word “dancesical” makes me a little nervous. After all, a focus on choreography is nothing unusual for most musical theater productions. But at the Black Ensemble Theater’s latest show, the dancesical “Once Upon a People,” the high-energy, expert dancing is the stand-out element in a show with an otherwise lackluster, under-developed plot.
In traditional BET style, “Once Upon a People” opens with a company song that helps introduce the show. The audience is welcomed into the African kingdom of Mirah, helmed by Queen Imani (Alexis J. Rogers) and King Babatunde (Donald Craig Manuel). The couple’s daughter, Princess Erin (Jazelle Morriss) and her husband-to-be, Prince Oba (Eric Lewis), are begrudgingly getting ready for their upcoming wedding, despite the fact that neither wants to wed the other. It’s not a new plot set-up, which is fine—there’s something comforting about a formulaic fairy tale—but their characters lack depth, making it difficult to sympathize with their plight. (Their duet, “He [She] Is Not the One” helps but just doesn’t do enough to sketch out the betrothed couples’ sorrow.)
They marry anyway—they’re royals, after all—but the nuptials are broken up by an angry sorceress, Zahara (Claudia Alexandria Cunningham), who’s angry, seemingly, at not being invited to the royal bash. She unleashes her wrath in the form of a terrible ice storm, which destroys the kingdom and forces the newlyweds to band together amid tragedy.
While the performances are strong, especially Rogers, whose beautiful voice reverberates throughout the theater, the second half could benefit greatly from a pared down, clearer script. As the true reason for Zahara’s underlying anger is revealed, the plot twist left me with more questions than answers. Additional consistency issues and an unnecessary storyteller character only muddy the second half.
Rightly so, “Once Upon a People” places a strong emphasis on choreography rooted in traditional African dance, but it doesn’t need the hokey distinction of being a “dancesical.” Thanks to help from the BET’s partner, Studio One, the theater is full of energy from some top-notch performers, but all the on stage talent can’t compensate for a less than compelling story.
“Once Upon a People” runs through Sunday, Dec. 29 at Black Ensemble Theater (4450 N. Clark) on Mondays, Tuesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45-$65 and are available online or by phone at 773-769-4451. For calendar information please visit www.theatreinchicago.com.