Paying homage to great music is a staple of Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater; in Sounds So Sweet, the company’s latest production, music by some of the most iconic girl groups in history takes center stage. From The Bobbettes and The Chiffons to The Emotions and The Pointer Sisters, the musical has something for the old school, the new school, and everyone in between.
Written and directed by Black Ensemble Theater associate director Rueben Echoles, Sounds So Sweet is the story of the Harris children and grandchildren who convene at the family’s Mississippi home to prepare for the funeral, aka “going to heaven party,” for its matriarch, Ernestine “Grandstine” Harris (Yahdina U-Deen, who appears for flashback scenes). By default, the oldest sister, Ruth (Rhonda Preston), who left home to care for Grandstine when she fell ill, now heads the family, absorbing all the ups and downs along the way.
The story begins with Ruth alone in the Harris living room, reminiscing about her mother. Soon, the extroverted younger sister, Marcia (Dawn Bless), arrives to town from Chicago, followed by her two feuding daughters, the “has-it-all-together” Ria (Nicole Michelle Haskins) and the flighty, irresponsible Michelle (Ti Nicole Danridge). Ruth’s budding Broadway actor son Michael (Mark “J.P.” Hood) arrives with his white fiancée, Denise (Paige Hauer), in tow, much to Ria’s dismay. Rounding out the Harris family is Ruth’s daughter Melissa (Melanie McCullough) and Tiana (Jessica Brooke Seals), Grandstine’s great-granddaughter who attends Howard University.
Most of the story centers on the family reminiscing about singing and performing and it is precisely during these scenes where the Black Ensemble Theater does what it does best: celebrating music. For the Harris family, the interest in music, along with a special affinity for girl groups, emanates from The Sweets, a fictional group that Grandstine was once part of.
The story’s Soul Food-esque feel is nothing new, especially with familiar family drama elements of regret, resentment and sibling rivalry. Despite these kinds of woes that often materialize during times like this, this family-friendly offering avoids getting too deep; instead, it heavily relies on music and entertainment to drive the story.
Throughout the play, the audience is treated to fun, intergenerational girl group battles featuring medleys from groups that included The Supremes, Destiny’s Child, TLC and 702; however, for old school Ruth, girl groups have only one queen, Diana Ross, while for the fence-straddling Marcia, there’s certainly nothing wrong with some Beyoncé every now and then. Speaking of Marcia, Bless’s sung version of Left Eye’s rap in “No Scrubs” is not to be missed. Another musical highlight is an awesome mash-up of The Clark Sisters’ “Is My Living In Vain” with the Xscape cover of the song toward the end.
Through both the music and family element, Echoles’ story effectively evokes nostalgia, reminding us all of a time when family members actually interacted with each other, instead of being immersed in smart phones and other technology and it is here where the story has heart.
Although some of the subplots felt stuffed, and the set design left a lot to be desired, Sounds So Sweet paid a solid tribute to girl groups, reminding everyone of an era long gone.
Sounds So Sweet runs through May 31st at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. in Chicago. For more information, visit the site or contact the box office at 773-769-4451.
LaShawn Williams is a freelance writer and editor from Chicago, Illinois. She is an arts and entertainment enthusiast who has a serious thing for stand-up comedy, music and dance. Follow her on Twitter: @MsWilliamsWorld.