At Sunday afternoon's opening of "It's All-Right to Have a Good Time: The Story of Curtis Mayfield" at Black Ensemble Theater, two of the 10 sons of the great Chicago-born singer and songwriter were in the audience, along with Altheida Mayfield, his widow. Todd and Kirk Mayfield were gracious and clearly moved, thanking the company for, as they put it, "honoring the music."
They were right. Jackie Taylor's "Curtis Mayfield Story" most certainly does honor the music of the man some called the black Bob Dylan — although, as this show points out, you could argue just as well that Dylan was the white Curtis Mayfield. And whereas Dylan was born in Minnesota and emerged in New York, Mayfield was raised in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects, went to New York to further his career and came back to Chicago, running his Curtom Records label (with Eddie Thomas) from 1 N. Wacker Drive in the early 1960s, becoming one of the first African-American performers to run his own label and anchoring that which was known as Chicago Soul. Detroit had Motown. Memphis had Stax records. Chicago had Mayfield and his genius.
Mayfield's music holds up extraordinarily well, both in its formative experimentation and in the complexity of its lyrics, never mind its famous permissiveness when it comes to asserting it is all right to have a good time. We all need to know that. The life and times of Mayfield really matter in Chicago. As the book of the piece unfolded Sunday — Reginald Torian, a member of The Impressions who plays the older version of a man he really knew, is the narrator — the various early influential figures on Mayfield got the kind of applause you only give out when you know and love the person or institution being honored. Personally.
One does not go to Black Ensemble to see "War and Peace." And most musical biographies of the living or recently deceased are hagiographies, given that's the way to get the blessing of the star or the keepers of their flames. All of that is a given. But while Taylor has figured out how to honor the music (Cecil Jones, who plays the young Curtis, both looks and sounds like his man), I really don't think she yet has figured out how to tell his story. Torian, who could be a real asset here, is chronically underused, delivering most of his narration while playing the paralyzed Curtis, flat on his back, looking back on his life. That setback in the subject's health is certainly a part of the story; Mayfield was paralyzed after lighting equipment fell on him in 1990 and he was dead by age 57. But that should be the end of the story, not its anchor. It feels like too much of a disconnect from the early vitality of the man and his music.
Part of the problem here — common at this theater, to be frank — is that the story ends up unfolding almost entirely in the past tense: I did that, then I did that, then this happened to me. Successful jukebox musicals like "Jersey Boys" or even "Motown: The Musical" move forward in time, allowing fans to watch the lives of their heroes unfold before them. Taylor has to force herself to dramatize more scenes, rather than rely so much on description and narration, which tends to impede the inherent drama that you can find in a remarkable life lived by someone like Mayfield.
For some reason, it's more bothersome than usual here, partly because Jones and Torian, although neither experienced actors, are so jointly capable of emulating the music of this great Chicagoan.
Of course, little of that was bothering most Mayfield fans Sunday, all of whom seemed to be enjoying hearing music of astonishing range, from "Freddie's Dead" (the theme from the movie "Superfly") to "Something He Can Feel." The potential and potency of this piece feel limitless to me, yet the show, at this juncture, gets too trapped in the business issues of the recording industry, which traps one in familiar themes, when Mayfield was, above all else, an individual. His life outside the studio deserves far more of an airing. For few Chicagoans have achieved such artistic greatness.
When: Open run
Where: Black Ensemble Theatre, 4450 N. Clark St.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $55-$65 at 773-769-4451 or blackensembletheater.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun