Noise/Funk: Fo' real Black theatre on 'Da great White way.
The institutional arms of White Racist Culture (WRC), from capture to detainment to transport to enslavement to Jim Crow to present-day, recycled Dred Scottisms and Plessy v. Fergusonisms, and have diligently and cleverly enforced WRC's agenda to deny Black folks true and full human respect. Faced with this massive onslaught, Black folks in America created a counter-culture, Black Moral Culture (BMC), which, against all perceived possibility and reason, delivered love and self-respect. Fueled by cultural memory, by the perverse Pan-Africanization process of The Middle Passage and experiences of slavery and/or quasi-freedom in America, Black folks held onto something, reshaped something, and constantly reinvented that reshaped-something which is at the core of its phenomenal odyssey through history. That something is metaphorically called 'Da Beat, and it is on exquisite display in Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk.
Noise/Funk does what few plays on Broadway, and even fewer Black plays on The Great White Way, have been allowed to do: articulate a thesis. As if collaborating on a history book, the creators of Noise/Funk brainstormed the scope of their research, organized it into chronological chapters, and, quite importantly, determined its purpose. This last places Noise/Funk squarely in the history and tradition of Black Theatre. The preferred style of blending a didactic purpose with entertainment values is a long-standing tradition in the history of African-American dramatic art.
William Wells Brown's The Escape; Or, A Leap to Freedom (1858) is the oldest extant African-American play script. In this historic play which Brown based on his own experiences as a slave in the South, with the purpose of appealing to White folks of good conscience to support the abolition movement, Brown told his story with the theatrical devices of the day, which are quite melodramatic by our modern standards. But what Brown did was set into motion a tradition that most Black dramatists and theatre artists employ to this day. His purpose was fourfold: (1) to tell his story through his own experience, (2) to engage the audience through entertaining means, (3) to validate the common experience of Black folks, and (4) to appeal to the goodwill of White folks and, through logic and pathos, petition them to join the righteous battle against racism and oppression. Later, Angelina Weld Grimke would follow this model in her landmark 1916 play Rachel, as would Richard Wright and Paul Green (Native Son, 1941), Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun, 1959), and many others whose plays put race up front as their central issue.
The challenge of the Black musical play to adhere to the didactic model is that it is victimized by the WRC's belief and practice that African-American musical talent is charming, entertaining, and meaningless. Outside of the Black Theatre domain, where musicals have long been used as a powerful arm in its cultural artillery, the history has been one of Blacks, in the more benign sense, entertaining Whites and, in the more malignant sense, ridiculing and debasing themselves for the sport and pleasure of Whites eager for casual enjoyment and/or validation of their own sense of superiority and entitlement.
The legacy of blackface minstrelsy has claimed many individual casualties, and placed upon the image of African Americans, as a whole, the masks of Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, Savage Brute, Coon, Sambo, Pickaninny, and Tragic Mulatto--and all of their variations and reincarnations. This popular imagery continues to place an enormous burden on Black entertainers and edutainers. How do they present themselves as artists and represent the race at the same time that demeaning masks are placed upon them with the intent of transfixing them in a time that has "gone with the wind," but whose tail currents are hungrily trying to spin the world backwards to the "good ole days" when "almost every Black person had a job in the cotton fields"? What a John Henryesque task that is, one worthy of Queen Nzinga and her army!
But Noise/Funk dares to challenge the mythology and re-educate the miseducated masses of America and, indeed, the world. And it is trying to do that on the Broadway stage. I say "trying to do that" because one must view and experience Noise/Funk with a knowledge of African-American history and how it is contextualized within the history of the world. George C. Wolfe appropriately subtitles Noise/Funk, a "tap/rap discourse on the staying power of 'Da Beat." As such, do not leave home to see and experience this tap/rap discourse without your copy of Lerone Bennett's Before the Mayflower and your Metaphor Card, because Noise/Funk does not accept "American distress" or intellectual lethargy. It challenges you to examine your own notions about race, culture, history, and what is to come.
Noise/Funk is also in the tradition of the African-American Odyssey Play. It tells centuries of history in approximately two hours. This is the wonderful beauty of art. By its nature, art interprets the human experience, and has the choice and power to create and manipulate metaphors which can succinctly speak volumes in seconds and minutes. My personal experiences in writing, developing, and directing odyssey plays at the National Black Theatre (Harlem, NY) and Rites and Reason Theatre (Providence, RI) have revealed to me and taught me how complex and challenging this process is--and, ultimately, that the responsibility for accurate portrayals of history must be foremost in the minds of the creators while they are, simultaneously, working out the intricacies of the styles of presentation. As the head of this creative enterprise, George C. Wolfe did something which is rare in the theatre business: He invited other artists to participate, in a major way, in the creation and development of Noise/Funk.
In the booklet which is part of the CD soundtrack package, Savion Glover is quoted as saying,
About a year and a half ago, George
asked me if I wanted to do some work
at The Public. I said yes. He said what
kind? I told him, "I want to bring in
'da noise. I want to bring in 'da funk."
This conversation, which is now part of theatre lore, was reinforced in an interview that I conducted with Ann Duquesnay, co-creator, leading woman, and 1996 Tony Award winner for Featured Actress in a Musical for Noise/Funk Based upon her superlative work in Wolfe's Jelly's Last Jam and her expertise in transforming text into music and song in Spunk, Wolfe invited Duquesnay to be the vocal arranger for Noise/Funk. But, more than holding that position, she was an integral contributor to the workshop process which culminated in this breakthrough Broadway presentation. I focus on Duquesnay because she is the female energy which maintains the melodic thread, balance, clarity, and counterpoint to 'Da Beat, which resonates emphatically in the dance/tap, music, and language of the male story-tellers.
At long last, I attended a performance of Noise/Funk, at the Ambassador Theatre, on Thursday, May 15,1997, with my mother Shirley T. Morgan (a belated Mothers' Day gift, compliments of The Public Theater). This turned out to be more of a gift to me, because I was able to observe the reactions to the play from someone of an older generation, along with my own (a middle-aged baby boomer). My interview with Ann Duquesnay, after the performance, was conducted more by Shirley than me. Both of them were in such animated and delightful dialogue that I chose my moments carefully to interject a question.
What I learned was that Noise/Funk spoke to different Black generations. The fact that the younger generation, the Hip-Hop culture, if you will, had been so instrumental in its creation and development was not lost on us. The flow of information and collaboration of artists of different ages and experiences solidified the sense of historical continuum and connectedness. The question as to how much of the historical information in the play the audience understood and absorbed was one of the major topics of our discussion. Duquesnay told us that, from her conversations with various audience members, they generally "got it." As for the more-obscure details, such as references to historical personalities, she agreed that many probably did not get the full force of what was being said, such as in the opening and finale number "Bring in 'Da. Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk":
Madam C. J. Walker
Fryin' Up Some Heads
Robert Walker Strummin'
Rippin' Strings Ta Shreds
Or, in the penultimate act one vignette, "I Got 'Da Beat/Dark Tower":
... Du Bois
Was a voice choice
Sassie as a
His Eyes On
Plus Jessie Fauset ...
To understand, first, the actual enunciation of each word and, second, the words' historical meanings within the overall poetic presentation requires both a "fast ear" and a knowledge of history.
At times, it was difficult for me to understand some of the spoken language in Noise/Funk, for the language sometimes competes with the orchestra, the sounds of intricate tapping, and Duquesnay's versatile vocals. I attribute this to generational conditioning. The handful of young People of Color whom I saw entering the theatre were, thankfully, culturally correct in their lively responses to the performances; they responded to moments which simply passed right over me because I could not hear fast enough to pick up on and process certain rhythmically RAPsodized lexicons and information. My mother had even more problems than I did. I rationalized that we are living in the MTV/ATM/Internet generation, and members of this generation hear faster and more clearly than those of us from the TV and Radio generations. My suggestion: Buy the CD, which provides the lyrics, and see Noise/Funk again.
In terms of its structure, Noise/Funk lives in a timeless space. Although it presents the African-American Odyssey in chronological order, its cyclical aesthetic is reinforced by 'Da Beat, something which always was, always is, and always will be. 'Da Beat is that thing that Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, founder and CEO of the National Black Theatre, calls the Science and Technology of Soul.
A phenomenal occurrence began when Africa was dispersed about the world. Although enslaved, dehumanized, and despised, these people of The African Diaspora, specifically those in the U.S.A., created cultures which manifested Art so powerfully and seductively that the Nazis banned its music wherever it conquered, and even the most devout White racist seeks out its camp site to warm his hands over the Flame of Soul generated by 'Da Beat. The cumulative history of African Americans represents a resistance to external pressure which, much like coal compressed into a diamond, resulted in a living, energized culture that harmonizes with the cosmos and forces of nature and generates cycles of Soulful expressions. These cultural expressions are articulated by Black artists who exude a vitality, precision, and intelligence that are globally and historically unique. In this Africanic cultural tradition, Art is not segregated from the overall flow of life; it is an integral part of the human experience. Thus, African-American artistic expression is informed by the substance of its culture, heritage, and history.
Noise/Funk uses tap dance as its primary artistic expression to tell the story of the African-American Odyssey. Tap, as an anthropological artifact, is the point of entry into understanding the complexity of the dominant African-American culture and its offspring cultures--and this is established in the very beginning of the show.
As music begins, a projection of the words "In the beginning there was ..." appears on the upstage screen. With the sound of the first performer (Savion Glover), the phrase is completed: 'Da Beat!" From there the ensemble, lead by 'Da Voice (Jeffrey Wright) and 'Da Singer (Ann Duquesnay), delivers the thesis of the play: "Bring in 'Da Noise! Bring in 'Da Funk, Y'all." In this way, the artists inform the audience that they are going to tell them a story. The riffin`-rappin' language signals that this is going to be a Funky, Soulful ride: Get ready!
Soon afterwards, 'Da Voice transports the audience back to "The Door to Isle Goree," one of the infamous slave "castles" on the West Coast of Africa where captured people were detained, sometimes for months, awaiting a full cargo so that they could be crammed into the hulls of ships and transported to the New World for sale as slaves, property of other human beings. The haunting song "Slave Ships" is a list of slave ship names. Economically staged with Savion Glover as "the slaves in the hulls of the ships" and 'Da Singer as the eternal, ancestral witness, hovering above with only face and hands lit, shrouded in blackness, this iconic scene establishes the seriousness of Noise/Funk. New World memory is being created. The sounds of waves splashing and crashing against ships with names like The Hope, The Africanesse Galley, The Cleopatra, The Nightingale, and The Africa are being incorporated into 'Da Beat, a sound that is soon to be the language of preference for a new racial/cultural hybrid people: the Negro, the Colored, the Black, the Afro-American, the African American.
In slavery, these New World people took from their sparse possessions to create "Som'thin' from Nuthin'." With an overhead projection informing the audience that drum use by slaves was banned in South Carolina in 1739, after the aborted slave uprising known as the Cato Conspiracy, 'Da Beat of the Drum moves like a spirit into the bodies, voices, and souls of the Black slaves. Ann Duquesnay reflected that, when working out this section in workshop, she thought about her father, who was a cotton and tobacco worker in North Carolina, and the story of how he fed a family for a week on 25 cents: Buy a nickel's worth of flour, corn meal, rice, beans, and fish.
It is within this nexus of generational experiences that Noise/Funk excels. In roundtable discussions, the primary creators and ensemble cast talked about their personal experiences, found common themes, and distilled them into resounding moments. Remembering her father's story, Duquesnay began to moan--that old, gut-wrenching moan that comes from Black mothers who rock, sway, and fan themselves on wooden benches in little Baptist/Methodist churches tucked away in Southern woods--echoes of Black mothers screaming for their stolen and murdered children in overtaken African villages, on Isle Goree, in slave ships, on plantations, swinging from lynching trees, locked in prisons.
In these moments, the artists become their creation; they are not separated from the experience which they are portraying. The grand cycle is propelled by circling eddies that connect and weave in and out of each other. This is where the phenomenology of African-American existence dwells, making "Som'thin' from Nuthin'." The female energy of 'Da Singer, the mother spirit who cries and screams, is the personification of the melody of 'Da Beat, Black music and spirit which could not and cannot be destroyed.
The metaphorical expression of this human phenomenon is reinforced in "The Pan Handlers." In this percussive performance, Jared & Ray put on a dazzling display of artistic brilliance, a symbolic salute to the ingenuity of Black folks. With their bodies strategically covered in pots, pans, and molded metal (and, behind them, racks of the same "found objects"), they pound out 'Da Beat with jazz precision--improvisation bouncing off of, but never forgetting, the intelligence of the musical thesis. If one analyzes this scene at the level of storyline, reams of misinformation will be internalized. Watching the play, I wondered how many in the audience thought this display was a little-known form of Black music making per se. At the level of metaphor, it is evident that the artistic expression is an innovative way to salute the heritage of Black folks' making "Som'thin' from Nuthin'." Remember, don't leave home without your Metaphor Card!
The section entitled "Urbanization" opens with a chilling dramatization of the rampant lynching of Black folks in America during the turn of the century and the early years of the 1900s. "The Lynching Blues," to me, is the most poignant scene in the play. The dancer, Baakari Wilder, is sheer, raw emotion, energy, and essence of dehumanization as he executes his lynched man's dance. The image of a snapped neck and dangling body, isolated in eerie light and shadow, is the most terrifying image I have ever seen on the stage. This is where the cultural excavation digs deep--way deep. The pain which is packed into 'Da Beat is gathering more memory and ugliness. And, in direct binary opposition, the art which comes out of these abused people becomes more forceful, urgent, and beautiful. They sang and tapped their blues on Mississippi levees, on the rails, and into the Promised Land: Chicago, Up South, the High Rise Nest of Jim Crow, Slum Lord, Blue-Uniformed Overseer--No Place for a "Native Son" or a "Raisin in the Sun" to be!
"Shifting Sounds," the post-World War I Black Northern migration, segues into the powerful "Industrialization" sequence. This is a stellar theatrical movement! The iron scaffold construction, lighting, and steam effects represent an essential use of Broadway resources to capture the texture of the Chicago factory. Within this space, the percussive sounds of the factory's machinery creates a poly-rhythmic symphony to accompany the multi-layered TAPsody of the workers. just as the rural, Southern environment of the plantations informed 'Da Beat, so did the urban, Northern environment of the factories--yet, another transformation re-shaping, reinventing that which had been re-shaped, all within 'Da Beat.
The Northern experience of factory work and jazzified night life quickly dissipates into a surreal nightmare too horrific to be fiction: Red Summer, the Chicago Riot of 1919, one of the bloodiest White-initiated riots in American history. "The Chicago Riot Rag" symbolizes the many race riots and lynching of Blacks and "niggah lovers" during Jim Crow's undisputed reign as lawmaker of the land, an illegal and extra-legal enforcer--welcome home gifts for Black GIs who were "getting too far out their places." The sarcastic, ironic overstatement of 'Da Singer--"Don't let the crackers fool you. Come join the ranks Up North"--signifies an experience known too well by Afro-America: The Big White Lie, The Forked Tongue, The Betrayal.
'Da Beat, now, holds post-World War I, Jazz Era, Getting Ready for the Depression, pre-World War II memory--more blues on the way. And the odyssey continues. With cinematic speed, the story shifts from Chicago to Harlem, New York. The segue is abrupt, and my dramaturgical analysis is that the shift would benefit from a more fluid movement of time and mood. With so much of act one devoted to the Chicago experience, there needs to be a beat in 'Da Beat to explain why the story is moving eastward to Harlem in the midst of its famed Renaissance. However, thematically, the transition supports the thesis that Black Americans are metaphysical mysteries. They occupy spaces of extreme pain and joy, of ugliness and beauty, at the same time.
The "I Got 'Da Beat/Dark Tower" scene is dominated by 'Da Voice. His Jazz/Rap epic poem paints the 1920s Harlem landscape with names and images of Black/Brown/Red/Yalla Damn-Near-White New Negro icons. (Take your copy of Langston Hughes's The Big Sea to refresh your memory.)
As the Roaring '20s roar on, this moment segues into the wild and furious "Whirling Stomp." Projections of the near future, now memories of systematic and technologically supported holocausts and devastation, flash on the rear screen, and loom as reminders of how small the world really is. The End of Act One: 'Da Beat is now in the world. What impact will it have?
Act Two opens by asking the question "Where's 'Da Beat?" Time has progressed to the 1930s and 1940s. The setting: Hollywood.
This entire movement is a grand metaphor for the co-opting of Black folks' artistic expressions by White America. The Kid represents the Black performers who are caught up in the wicked dilemma of choosing between maintaining their artistic and human integrity, and, therefore, remaining unknown outside of the Black world, and starving--or donning Blackface Minstrel Masks and achieving Negro fame and fortune in the White world.
'Da Singer, now a Billie Holiday-like incarnation, is the reminder of what this entertainment business can do to a talented Negro. Although struggling and all but defeated, she is the voice that pleads to the Kid not to betray 'Da Beat.
As the Kid goes from one sound stage to another, he comes across Grin & Flash, a successful tap-dancing team that has cooned its way into Hollywood--i.e., American--favor and that tries to teach him the rules of the game.
The Kid's next encounter is with Uncle Huck-a-Buck and Lil' Dahlin, a bodacious parody of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple movies. In an ingenious use of actor, costume, and property, Savion Glover portrays the golden-locked Lil' Dahlin'. With a life-sized Lil' Dahlin' doll attached to his feet, and her arms attached to his hands like a marionette puppet, Glover becomes an actualization of the coded features of Black Moral Culture. In effect, the image says, "I know you have stolen my Beat and claimed it as yours, and there is nothing I can do about it, but I will keep on tapping to My Beat." Deferring to White folks, going along with the program, has been a long-time survival strategy employed by many Blacks. As Uncle Huck-a-Buck says, "Who de hell cares if I acts de fool / When I takes me a swim in my swimming pool...." The Kid has learned a lesson. If you want the status items of success, even a "high yella" horse, give'm what they want: Sell your soul to the devil.
Having seen Negro Heaven, the Kid rushes off for his audition. After being coached by a White director on how to do appropriate cooning (a la Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle), the Kid is ready to deliver "Just Flash," "No Beat." 'Da Singer laments the spiritual death of the Kid:
Your Shimmy Don't Sham
Like It Used To Do ....
You Got That Lost Beat Swing ...
The next movement is a somber education: "Green, Chaney, Buster, Slyde" (master, but unknown, tappers). This section offers a rare and intimate opportunity to witness an expert tapper dance around/under/over/on top/inside of 'Da Beat. As Wolfe notes,
There are these old black tap dancers,
who were taught by the old black tap
dancers before them, and so on. All
those guys then passed that information
on to Savion, and it landed in his
feet, and his being, and his soul.
In this quiet and elegantly uncluttered moment, Savion Glover, the man and artist, is the embodiment of Noise/Funk. He is style and substance, a respectful and intelligent inheritor of a noble tradition. He is an educator. His voice-over, which pulls the great names of Black tappers out of the dust of obscurity, works in perfect harmony with his movements and tapping.
The harmony is achieved by his simultaneous creation of music and dance through the phenomenon of tap. Once the tap hits the floor, the music begins. (The Noise brings the Funk.) The tapper controls the rhythm, intensity, and length of the organic music which is produced by dance, and this moment takes us behind the minstrel mask, behind the Hollywood absurdities, and matter-of-factly tells the audience that Sambo is a creation that has nothing to do with being Black Me.
The next movement, "Street Comer Symphony," is performed in four parts: "Them Conkheads (1956)," "Hot Fun (1967)," "Blackout (1977)," and "Gospel/Hip Hop Rant (1987)." This section attempts to tell the story of how one Harlem block changed from community to desolation over four decades. In order to understand this movement fully, you need to have an in-depth knowledge of the external factors which contributed greatly to the plight of the Inner City. "Street Comer Symphony," deviates from the Noise/Funk thesis and, therefore, should be revisited by the creators in order to re-establish clarity. This is where I would "red-ink" one of my student's papers.
"Street Comer Symphony" tells the downside of the story, but does not reveal the beauty making and durability of these Black folks, as it did in act one. Against drug infestation, municipal neglect, White gentrification, and economic strangulation, Black Harlemites are still fighting the Great Battle. The cosmic power of 'Da Beat needs to be reinforced in this section so that the audience is not left thinking these Black folks are solely responsible for their demoralized condition.
A lot of Noise and Funk was happening in those forty years: the Civil Rights Movement, Black Arts Movement, Motown, Women's Movement, Gay Movement, Viet Nam, Desegregation, Integration, Disco Era, Rap/Hip-Hop, Reconstruction II, Death of Reconstruction II, Jim Crow II. And, through all of this, 'Da Beat was the life force which sustained Black folks. All of this represents a critical moment in the historical thesis of Black America, one which Noise/Funk could do more effectively with its demonstrated, innovative use of tap, song, language, slide projections, and staging.
With Hip-Hop quickness, the story fast forwards to 'Da Now. Sounds of traffic and flashing projections of New York City scenes accompany the intense rhythms of the Drummers who play on upside-down plastic buckets. Again, making "Som'thin' from Nuthin'," 'Da Beat goes on!
The "Drummin'/Taxi" scene uses the irony of Black Humor to express the common condition of present-day African-Americans: Four Black men of diverse style try to hail a taxi on a New York City street: a B-Boy, a student, a Buppie, and a general carrying Colin Powell's autobiography. The taxi cab passes by all four of them. In turn, each man releases his anger in tap. At the end of the scene, all four tap out their anger together. Finally, they yell "Taxi!!!" and give "the finger" to the passing taxi.
Less than ten words are spoken in this scene, which speaks volumes. It is a harmonious blend of dance, rhythm, costuming, and character which tells a familiar story in a powerful way. As in many African-American dramas, the unseen character is Racism, represented in this instance by the unseen taxi driver. This ever-present character does not require psychological development or a background biography; Black folks know him well. The four men do what many Black folks would love to do, act out their anger and fury, a cultural seed which is manifest in the creation and performance of African-American Dance.
Also housed in 'Da Beat are the silences between the beats: the demoralizing effects of everyday racism. The men express their anger, give "the finger," and, still, the taxi does not stop for any of them.
Ann Duquesnay recounted a "taxi" incident which happened to her during the time she was doing Jelly's Last jam on Broadway: She tried to hail a taxi, but none would stop. Finally, a White woman, who had witnessed her attempts, asked if she could hail one for her. She did, and Ann got into the taxi. Although grateful to get the taxi, she was angry and weepy-eyed. A Broadway star, "dressed to the nines," and a woman, she could not successfully hail a taxi on a New York City street! What goes beyond the obvious, and must be known by experience, is that this practice extends to many Black taxi drivers and other People of Color. Ann asked one Black African taxi driver why he did that, and he responded by telling her that the people who have robbed him have been Black. The stench of racism permeates beyond race. For the audience member who looks beyond the surface of the performance of "Drummin'/Taxi," there will be a backlash emotion which shouts, "God Damn!"
The next movement, "Conversations," can be used as a moment to reflect upon the subtext and substance of "Drummin'/Taxi." Images of the Dancers and Drummers project on the screen as their respective voice-overs give personal testimonies about who they are and what dance and music mean to them. This quiet moment reinforces the thesis that these artists are not reincarnations of the stereotypical Buck and Savage Brute icons, but are human beings, men with positive, self-fulfilling aspirations who are worthy of, at least, being picked up by a taxi on a New York City street.
As "Conversations" fades, the Dancers and Drummers appear on stage ready for their Tap Jam in "Tradin' Hits." In this scene, tap speaks over 500 years of history from the vantage point of 'Da Now. "Tradin' Hits" is aggressive, angry, fiery, determined. As 'Da Beat propels the hands of the Drummers and the feet of 'Da Dancers, a Masterpiece Theatre-like commentator is rolled on stage in an overstuffed chair, reading from an oversized dictionary. He punctuates the hittin' with various definitions of the word hit. This incongruous image actually completes the discourse. As the rage of centuries hits, stomps, pounds, pierces, and flashes in Black hands and feet flying at lightening speed, the pompous commentator dares to read from his Book of Self-Ordained Authority mi an attempt to explain something which he has never understood, 'Da Beat.
The picture of young Black men, dressed in their generational Hip-Hop uniforms, hittin' to 'Da Old School Beats, reshaped, reinvented, and incorporated into 'Da New School Beat, smashes the wall between stage and audience, making 'Da Noise of the future and carrying 'Da Funk of the past. Once again, tradition is re-enacted, repeated, relived: Black folks make "Som'thin' from Nuthin'."
And the discourse ends where it began. In the voice of 'Da Singer:
Madam C. J. Walker
Fryin' Up Some Heads
Robert Johnson Strummin'
Rippin' Strings Ta Shreds
Talkin' 'Bout Miss Zora
Pennin' Tales 'Bout Us
Bessie Bustin' Blues
Bringin' In 'Da ... Bringin' In 'Da ...
Bringin' In 'Da Funk ....
To paraphrase Amiri Baraka in his seminal work Blues People, music is the preferred language, or at least the first language, of African Americans. From the core of the music, informed by 'Da Beat of diverse African memory and common Diasporic experience, the family of artistic cultural expressions holds the secrets and coded messages of a people who are an existential phenomenon. As the Noise/Funk thesis articulates this African-American phenomenology, it provides information which raises even more questions than it explores.
Noise/Funk cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, for it is a modern-day anomaly. Given the economic stranglehold from which Black Theatres are trying to extricate themselves, the presence of Noise/Funk on Broadway is especially significant. The African-American Odyssey play is not uncommon in Black Theatre. Almost every Black playwright has one in either musical or dramatic form. But Noise/Funk is the one that burst through the proverbial Color Line. As such, given the high profile and cultural value attributed to Broadway, it is now a "Negro First." Although categorized as a Musical, this Tap/Rap Discourse has gone beyond the concept of the slick revue, where beautiful, well-draped Black performers put their talents on splendid display for entertainment purposes only. Noise/Funk "gets up in yo' face" and dares the audience to get an education about Black folks.
In the spirit of W. E. B. Du Bois and the Krigwa Players of the late 1920s, Noise/Funk satisfies at least one of the criteria they professed for being accepted into the ranks of Black Theatre: It is a play created by Black folks. The collaborative work of the creators and ensemble in workshop, together with the extensive research of Shelby Jiggetts, situates the Noise/Funk development process in that tradition.
Where it differs is in the other two criteria: The play should be for "Negroes" and near "Negroes." DuBois's concern about Black plays produced on Broadway was that they would not be "Negro" plays or would be "Negro" plays about Negroes that other Negroes did not know or want to know, such as Uncle Huck-a-Buck. With approximately seventy years of progress since the Krigwa Players, Noise/Funk brings to Broadway a Black play with Black characters that other Blacks know within a real historical context.
As for being performed near "Negroes," in their churches, schools' and lodges, as Du Bois suggested, it is obvious that Noise/Funk would be relatively unknown if that were the case. The same would be true if Noise/Funk were playing at a Black theatre, even in New York City. How it got to Broadway is, in great part, due to the extraordinary talent and vision that George C. Wolfe possesses, and to the exceptional position that he holds in the business. So, the questions are begged: (1) Can any other Black producer and/or creator get a meaningful Black musical on Broadway, and (2) if the audience remains consistently, predominately White, what is the purpose?
My crystal ball is cloudy these days, so I don't know what the future holds. If the audience clamors for more Noise and Funk, then perhaps the door has been opened for others to enter. However, given the history where only one or perhaps two Blacks per decade or so are allowed access to the Great White Way, I don't expect the welcome mat to be forthcoming. The historical challenge is for Black folks to continue the Righteous Battle on all fronts: To remain vigilant about inclusion and, at the same time, to support their own cultural arts institutions so that first-class resources are available to present their art in temples worthy of their heritage.
But, as is the history, even during the cruelest of times, 'Da Beat will always be heard. And Black folks will keep reshaping it, reinventing it, and reshaping the reinvention: 'Da Noise is in perfect harmony with the universe, and 'Da Funk is quite sweet. As the final projection speaks: "There will always be ... (BLACKOUT)... 'Da Beat!"
Elmo Terry-Morgan is Artistic Director of Rites and Reason Theatre, located at Brown University. Founded in 1970 by George Houston Bass, Rites and Reason is the developmental theatre of the Afro-American Studies Program, and is known for its Research-to-Performance Method (RPM). Terry-Morgan is also Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies and Theatre Arts at Brown, and is a directing associate at The National Black Theatre. Plays produced by The National Black Theatre which he has written and/or directed have earned nineteen AUDELCO Awards, among them his drama The Fruits of Miss Morning and Song of Sheba, his odyssey musical in collaboration with Clarice LaVerne Thompson. Terry-Morgan wishes to acknowledge Kojo Ade, an independent group sales entrepreneur in New York City; The Joseph Papp Public Theater/NYSF, especially Donna Walker-Kuhne, Director of Public Affairs, and Carol R. Fineman, Press Representative; Shirley T. Morgan, for her honest insights; and most especially Ann Duquesnay, who granted him a personal interview after the May 15, 1997, performance of Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk.
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|Title Annotation:||play 'Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk' on Broadway|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1997|
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