‘American Soul’ energizes the spirit of Don Cornelius

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Sinqua Walls in "American Soul"

Sinqua Walls in “American Soul”

Ensemble drama
celebrates how
“the coolest
brother on TV”
united a community
through music,
dance, and fashion

Fans endured a cold rain while waiting for a sneak peek at the first episode of American Soul in Chicago last Tuesday night. Judging from the mood after the show, it was worth the discomfort.

After all, Don Cornelius overcame much greater hassles while turning Soul Train into a cultural institution, and his life is at the center of BET’s new series.

Premiering on February 5th at 8 p.m. central, American Soul places Cornelius’ personal journey within a larger drama about African Americans during the early 1970s. Thorough and engaging, it presents an era when Black people responded to dishonesty, greed, and racism with music, dance, and fashion.

Or, as Cornelius would say, “Love, Peace, and Soul.”

 
AMERICAN SOUL | TRAILER

 

The screening was part of an exclusive event at Morgan Manufacturing, a former industrial space retrofitted as a nightclub in the Fulton Market district.

Held in the same town where both Cornelius and Soul Train got their starts, the soiree included an open bar, a live DJ, a customized photo booth, a handful of museum-style exhibits, and an extensive Q&A with four cast members hosted by WGCI’s Leon Rogers.

“This is the first time we’ve actually had the opportunity to see the episode,” said Sinqua Walls, the actor who plays Don Cornelius, before the show began. “Let’s rock the celebration of American Soul.”

Sinqua Walls
Sinqua Walls

Like any historical series, American Soul starts out by laying a lot of groundwork. The show opens when Cornelius is on the verge of gaining national syndication for Soul Train, then a Chicago sensation featuring dancers who are “stars around town.”

All he needs to seal the deal is to book a top-ten act.

Walls is confident in his portrayal of Cornelius, a complex, charismatic, and resilient visionary. He brings entertaining credibility to the man who seemed to have a different style for dealing with each of his multiple responsibilities.

He shows genuine affectionate for wife Dolores (Perri Camper), promising her “a mansion in every single state” while agreeing not to touch “the emergency fund.”

He is all business with Soul Train choreographer Tessa Lorraine (Iantha Richardson), insisting that, “I need stars creating the next dance craze,” after telling her, “I hired you because you were cheap.”

He is bold and inspiring with Gladys Knight (Kelly Rowland), explaining that “strong, powerful, and beautiful” are the ways that Black folks should be seen on TV.

He is meek and obedient when a racist cop from LA threatens to arrest him under a false charge.
 

Ensemble
Cornelius’ rising star is one of many arcs that channel the early Soul Train epoch. It is woven into a variety of narratives that bring life to the struggle and groove of the age.

Kelly Price
Kelly Price

A remarkably talented and likable vocal trio called Encore strives to make it big before one of them gets drafted into the Viet Nam war. Consisting of two siblings and their high school friend, the group relies on guidance from the siblings’ mother, Brianne Clarke (Kelly Price).

Drug-dealing nightclub owner Gerald Aims (Jason Dirden) becomes essential to Cornelius’ search for a top-ten act. Charming and loyal by day, violent and intimidating at night, he’s a pleasure to watch.

The choreographer Tessa Lorraine (Iantha Richardson) is a passionate and dedicated member of Cornelius’ team who simultaneously loves and hates her boss’s ability to get extra effort from the show’s staff.
 

Celebration

Fans enjoy the "American Soul" pre-screening event at Morgan Manufacturing
Fans enjoy the “American Soul” pre-screening event at Morgan Manufacturing

The entire audience stuck around for the post-screening Q&A hosted by Rogers, who set the mood early by describing Don Cornelius as the “smoothest and coolest brother on TV.” Combining behind-the-scenes production stories with bygone Soul Train memories, the crowd showed an abundance of warmth and support for the cast members in attendance.

Walls told the audience that he prepared for the role of Don Cornelius by “reading everything” and “watching everything” about the man that he could. He also consulted with Cornelius’ son, Tony.

Jason Dirden
Jason Dirden

“I said, ‘tell me a story about your father as your father,’” he recalls. “The way that he moved and behaved, the mannerisms.”

Tony’s recollections included the deeply personal and tragic story about how he was the first person to find his father after his father took his own life.

“The way he told it was with such grace and the way that he gave us such accolades and appreciation for telling the story … I had to say thank you for just giving this all to us,” Walls continued. “Tony opened his heart and his mind to us in a way that I’ve never seen somebody do. Yeah.”

The importance of this blessing cannot be underestimated. All of the cast members at the screening grew up watching Soul Train, and each one continues to cherish the show’s empowering creativity.

For Sinqua Walls, who tuned in “right after the Saturday morning cartoons,” Soul Train was “an introduction to culture” that motivated him to purchase the mix tapes of the show’s featured artists at the corner store.

Iantha Richardson
Iantha Richardson

For Iantha Richardson, it was a revelation starring “people who were like me” that “opened my eyes to everything that I could be.”

For Dirden, who remembers cleaning the family home in Houston with Soul Train playing in the background, it was “a time capsule of who we are, of what we were about, the pride we took in ourselves, and our culture.”

“We learned so much about us and why we shouldn’t be afraid to be unapologetically us,” he added.

Kelly Price remembers dancing with her siblings between a makeshift Soul Train line in the living room of her family home in Queens.

“It was hair grease and hot combs, laying out the clothes for church on Sunday … seeing beautiful people who sang incredible music,” she said. “I realized at a very early age that our music spoke to our ills, but it also healed us when we hurt. It was pouring something into me that I had no idea that would one day give me something to pull from to be who I was called to be.”

Indeed, the greatest challenge of American Soul is recreating a memory that grows sweeter with age. Price described the early 70s as a time when African Americans “lived in communities where nobody was going to go hungry” because people looked out for one another.

Don Cornelius was at the center of it all, bringing music and dance to millions every Saturday. If the audience reaction to his story is any indication, American Soul not only does him justice, but also helps viewers reinvigorate his spirit of joy along the way.

To view photos from BET’s American Soul screening event at Morgan Mfg click here.

 
WHY YOU WILL LOVE AMERICAN SOUL

 

 
Send your TV updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.

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