Theater Review
Audiences will bob their heads and tap their feet as Black Ensemble Theater’s latest production reaches back into music history to tell the story of R&B crooner Joe Tex.

The soul singer was at the top of the charts touring on the chitlin’ circuit with fellow soul men Ben E. King, Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett when he decided to walk away from it all to follow the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.

That provocative time in Tex’s life where his love for performing often clashed with his religious beliefs is explored in the musical production I Gotcha (The story of Joe Tex and the Soul Clan). The show runs through March 15.

It features renditions of Tex’s greatest hits including, “Hold on to What You got” and “Show Me.” The production also features tunes made famous by Soul Clan members, including Burke’s “Cry to Me,” Pickett’s “Midnight Hour” and King’s “This Magic Moment.” The Soul Clan was an early super group featuring the soul music greats.

According to playwrights David Barr III and Joe Plummer, the story of Joe Tex goes deeper than his friendship with King, Burke and Pickett – it’s an allegory typifying the hardships endured by most black R&B artists during soul music’s golden era. Barr said many black singers felt responsible for lifting their families out of poverty, and fame was a way to do that. But, he noted, stardom took its toll on the artists. Plummer added that stars like Sam Cooke and Frankie Lymon succumbed to that “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” lifestyle, and Tex was keenly aware of that.

“He decided to convert when he was at the top to make sure that it wouldn’t happen to him,” said Barr. “The story is about redemption more than anything. It is about going into a dark place and coming out positively on the other side.”

Tex converted to Islam in 1966, introduced to the religion by his road manager, Norman Thrasher, who belonged to the same Miami mosque of Muhammad Ali, who was also a member of the Nation. But Tex’s conversion was also a byproduct of the turbulent 1960s, Barr explained. During that time, Malcolm X was killed, four little girls were murdered in a Birmingham church, and the three civil rights workers helping to register blacks in the south were found dead in an earthen dam. Tex himself lived on the outskirts of Houston were lynchings were prevalent.

“Every week someone was being abused by some Jim Crow law,” Barr said.

When he became a Muslim, Tex had every intention of still performing, but stopped at Elijah Muhammad’s behest. When Tex walked away from the music industry, he had the number two hit song in the country, “I Gotcha,” released in 1972. Plummer, the play’s co-writer who, along with Barr, got his start in theater at Black Ensemble, said he found Tex’s decision to join the Nation of Islam intriguing.

“White folks and some black folks looked down on the Nation, because it was too radical,” Plummer said. “[Tex] was afraid that he would be condemned … and he wouldn’t get work or airplay.”

Born Joseph Arrington in Baytown Texas in 1933, Tex changed his name to Yusuf Hazziez after his conversion. His decision to stop performing allowed other R&B singers like James Brown to overshadow his musical genius, Plummer added. He noted contemporaries like Pickett, Burke and King are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while Tex is not.

When he did perform, his music had a deeper message of black empowerment and self-respect, Barr said. “He wasn’t doing any major proselytizing. He was talking about how black people got to love each other.”

In the 1970s, he had somewhat of a comeback with his disco hit “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (with No Big Fat Woman”). Tex and his Soul Clan members performed together one last time in 1981. A year later, he died of a heart attack at age 49. Plummer hopes the musical will reintroduce Tex to a whole new audience.

“He has been overlooked for all these years. No one can remember anything about Joe Tex, and I just want them to remember him.”

The “chitlin’ circuit” was a name give to a string of black performance venues in the south, east and Midwest from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Black singers, dancers and comedians performed in these venues as a result of not being allowed to perform in white venues because of segregation. The old Regal Theater on the South Side was one of Chicago’s chitlin’ circuit venues. The name derives from the soul food delicacy chitterlings.

If you go

“I Gotcha” – now through March 15

8 p.m., Friday and Saturday performances; 3 p.m. for Sunday matinees

Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon

Call Black Ensemble Theater for tickets at 773-769-4451.