Black Ensemble tunes in ‘Pendergrass’

Chicago company wants to take show on road

CHICAGO — After its success with touring “The Jackie Wilson Story” to a number of urban venues — including a monthlong run at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 2003 — Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater is exploring opportunities to take its latest musical biography, “I Am Who I Am (The Teddy Pendergrass Story),” on the road.

The Pendergrass bio, written and directed by Black Ensemble a.d. Jackie Taylor, opened March 16 at the theater’s 144-seat home base.

According to Brian Kabatznick, partner with the theater in joint venture Black Ensemble Touring Company, talks are under way with a potential transfer venue in Philadelphia, hometown of the legendary R&B singer.

Pendergrass, confined to a wheelchair since a car accident in 1982, attended the Chiopening. He has put his support behind the show, including collaborating on the script and writing three new songs.

“I’m eager to see this play everywhere,” Pendergrass says. “Of course, home would be a wonderful thrill.”

Black Ensemble Theater specializes in what Taylor calls “historical musicals,” which combine biography with a concert revue, accompanied by a live band under the musical direction of Jimmy Tillman. Recent shows have included “Don’t Make Me Over — In Tribute to Dionne Warwick,” “Don’t Shed a Tear: The Story of Billie Holliday” and “Memphis Soul: The Story of Staxx Records.”

The shows tend to be tributes, making glancing acknowledgments of personal controversies but focusing on triumph. “It has to be positive, it has to be uplifting, it has to be nourishing,” Taylor says.

The 30-year-old theater company, which has an annual operating budget of $1.8 million, is courting donors. Having purchased a building for a new space — not just a theater, but a community center to pursue all of its educational and civic interests — Taylor is working hard to raise $20 million in the hopes of opening the facilities in 2010.

Taylor programs a season but avoids a subscription model. “I don’t want to tie the theater down to a subscription series,” she says, “because then I can’t run the hits.”

“The Jackie Wilson Story” ran for more than two years at the theater before going on the road. Taylor has similarly high hopes for the potential duration of “I Am Who I Am.”

Kabatznick, who manages European facilities for sports and entertainment presenter AEG, has booked a few Black Ensemble shows into individual venues since he toured “The Jackie Wilson Story” to Detroit, Memphis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C, before ending at the Apollo. He acknowledges the show had some added advantages, particularly marketable leads in Chester Gregory and Melba Moore.

But he believes the Pendergrass show reaches the right demographic for a theatrical venture, and he’s willing to pursue smaller theaters if the economics work out.

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