Culture Magazine

Review: The Jackie Wilson Story (Black Ensemble Theater)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Jackie Wilson Story - Black Ensemble Theater   
The Jackie Wilson Story 

Written and Directed by Jackie Taylor 
at BE Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark (map)
thru Jan 8  |  tickets: $55-$65   |  more info

Check for half-price tickets 
   Read entire review



Calling Mr. Excitement!


Jackie Wilson Story - Black Ensemble Theater 2


Black Ensemble Theater presents


The Jackie Wilson Story

Review by K.D. Hopkins

The name Jackie Wilson carries the same poignant connotations as Sam Cooke, Frankie Lymon, and Bessie Smith. They were all extraordinary talents that were prevented by various circumstances from receiving the stature they deserved while living. The blessing is that they all shared a drive and love for singing. The curse was wanting to have control over the product – themselves and their music.

The Black Ensemble Theater has selected The Jackie Wilson Story as the premiere production for the premiere of their new home on Clark and Sunnyside. It is a grand home and BET is deserving of such a place to stage the signature plays and musicals that have come to define their mission statement of eradicating racism through theater. Founder Jackie Taylor is a trailblazer in non traditional casting with her own star turn as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire over twenty years ago. BET does more than the old ‘all Black cast’ shtick from the Otto Preminger/Vincente Minnelli days of Hollywood.

Under Ms. Taylor’s vision and direction The Jackie Wilson Story is an American tragedy no matter the color. Wilson’s talent was truly in the stratosphere. He could sing like a soul crooner on one tune and just as easily crooned an aria written for Mario Lanza in the next. His is a story originally staged 20 years ago by BET. It was given national attention and travelled to the Apollo Theater in New York where it broke records for a theatrical production at that venue. It is fitting that Jackie ‘Sonny’ Wilson once again be given the spotlight.

Kevin Roston Jr. absolutely shines in the lead role. Mr. Roston has the athletic build and agility that was Wilson’s trademark. The jump splits and backbends renewed the thrill that I got watching Wilson on American Bandstand, Ed Sullivan and Shindig. The raw sexuality is there and the women in the audience seemed transported back in time. The most important ingredient was getting Wilson’s amazing voice correct. In most autobiographies, the actors do an imitation or lip sync. Kevin Roston Jr. inhabits the voice and brings Wilson’s amazing range to vivid life. Roston is on fire portraying the angst and the hubris needed for Wilson to be the star that he was. Wilson’s love of drink and the ladies emanates from this amazing actor without any of the accompanying skeeve factor seen in lesser actors. The highs and lows of Wilson are made human. Jackie Taylor wrote the role unvarnished and without the filters put on historical characters. I know the music of Jackie Wilson intimately and Roston took my breath away.

The performances of long time BET members Melanie McCullough, Dawn Bless, Trinity Murdoch, and Rashawn Thompson are a sumptuous feast of gospel tinged soul and acting. Ms. Bless as Wilson’s adoring mother has what I call the ‘Effie’ moment recalling the showstopper "I’m Not Going" with the beautiful "A Mother’s Love". She is what we call having church complete with the Amen Corner.

McCullough is gorgeous and tender as Wilson’s childhood sweetheart Freida. She has the classic beauty of the 1950′s Sepia cover girl. She is brilliant opposite Roston. They have an aching synthesis that shows the lifelong connection between the couple.

Trinity Murdoch gets the biggest laughs as the against type show organizer with much attitude. Murdoch is hysterical in a dreamsicle orange suit and matching hankie for waving away attitude. Rashawn Thompson is perfect in his reserved performance as Wilson’s childhood friend BB. Mr. Thompson gives a steady and understated rhythm to the role. The pain of BB’s rollercoaster ride with Wilson veers from the surface to internalized with such grace. Mr. Thompson is evolving beautifully with each performance he does at BET.

As always, the choreography is perfect in recalling the carefully presented acts of the 50′s and 60′s. These acts were wearing 50lbs of bugle beads, sharkskin fabric, serious wigs, and most of all had to sing. There was no auto tune, countless retakes, or post production clean up necessary for Wilson, Barbara Acklin, LaVern Baker, Frankie Lymon or [insert a Motown act here].

It is my wish that more young people see the history of the music that is ‘sampled’ and outright stolen. Yes – I feel old saying that – but it is the truth. Jackie Wilson and others who built the American Soul songbook paid their dues and it is time to recognize it.

Witnessing this show was an unexpectedly emotional experience that is still taking time to settle for me. Hearing the Chicago Sound that I grew up with recalls a tumultuous time in America’s urban hubs. The music was so spectacular and evocative that it filled me with nostalgia.

Take a group of friends, give BET tickets as holiday gifts, and make BET a theater destination. As Jackie Taylor put it on opening night, "we still gotta pay for this place!"-so shop local and buy Chicago-made gifts like theater!


Rating: ★★★★



The Jackie Wilson Story continues through January 8th at BE Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark (map), with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $55-$65, and are available by phone (773-769-4451) or online at (check for half-price tickets at More information at




Kelvin Roston Jr. (Jackie Wilson); Melanie McCullough (Freida); Dawn Bless (Eliza Mae); Rashawn Thompson (B.B.); Lyle Miller, Reuben D. Echoles, Robin E. Beaman, Lawrence Williams, Trinity P. Murdock, Carrie, Coryandre Wright (ensemble)

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