Theater bridges the gap between Black, White experience

By Kyle Lawson, The Arizona Republic, May 7, 1999

The images of Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk make a compelling statement independent of the musical that dances around them: an unsettling parade of shattered dreams, broken promises and the faces of a people triumphant but at what cost?

Slave ships wallow through the Atlantic. Cotton fields broil under the Carolina sun. Panhandlers entertain on street corners and levees while their fellows are lynched. Workers, wanting a decent life for their children, take the train north, only to lose themselves in the jazzed-up, cocaine haze of the Cotton Club or to die in race riots.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dances with Shirley Temple in a Hollywood that tells it as it never was. Children and churches burn in Alabama while Martin Luther King Jr. dreams of how it could be.

These ironic and painful vignettes, more than a dozen of them, chart the course of African-Americans adrift in the land of the free, their only hope of anchor the insistent cadences of “Da Beat.”

Director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover have fashioned a Broadway musical that turns its back on the genre while it embraces the notion that rhythm, in particular “Da Noise,” the pulsating sound of feet slapping against surface, sticks rapping against objects, is the true voice of America’s Blacks.

Their argument is simple but powerfully promulgated: “Da Beat” transcends language, ideological differences and the grim realities of racism to speak directly to the Black soul. It is the essence of survival in the hard times, an essential mode for celebrating in the good.

Tap dancing is at the core of the Noise/Funk vision. Not the elegant grace of Fred Astaire or the clean-cut athleticism of Gene Kelly or the swirling arms and wide grins of the Nicholas Brothers. It is tap as “Da Funk,” a throwback to lu-funki, an African word that means the “smell of the sweat.”

Heavy, throbbing, ear-jangling slaps that speak of pride, of love, of anger, of fear. The show traces the development of this style from slavery days through the contemporary masters of the form, Chuck Green, Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde and Lon Chaney.

Beginning in the 1700s, when slave owners banned the use of drums, Black people began to make music with their feet, creating a strong tap rhythm that was accentuated by other Blacks pounding out the tempo on improvised instruments: pots, pans, crates, anything that was handy.

As generations passed and different musical forms emerged, the tappers adapted. The blues, jazz, gospel, rock, hip-hop and rap found their way into the dance. Glover samples each of the idioms, then filters it through his New York urban sensibility to produce an exhilarating style that brought Gammage Auditorium audiences to their feet Tuesday in one of the longest, most enthusiastic ovations in memory.

Not everyone will buy into the show’s premise, of course. In spite of its exuberance, there is an obsessive focus on the bleaker aspects of the Black experience. The segments dealing with “crossover” artists are mean-spirited, cheap slaps at the artistry of Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, who are dismissed as Uncle Huck-A-Buck and Grin and Flash in the script.

But no one can resist those infectious taps. Three remarkable young dancers – Dominique Kelley, Vincent Bingham and Christopher A. Scott – and one sensational one – Jimmy Tate – lay them down clean. Often their feet are a blur, the only evidence of the rapidity and number of their contacts with the floor provided by the ear which can hear each tap, pristine and strapping, thanks to the ankle mikes that each dancer wears.

The quartet is joined by two drummers, David Peter Chapman and Dennis J. Dove, whose talent and technique are nothing short of breathtaking, and by the richly voiced Debra Byrd and Thomas Silcott, who move the story along with song and the spoken word.

This is no Oklahoma! No Cats or Phantom of the Opera. Wolfe and Glover have deliberately broken with the past in structure and style, though they are not above alluding to other Broadway musicals. Tate dances in front of a mirror as Donna McKechnie did in A Chorus Line. The riot sequence calls to mind West Side Story’s rumble.

But there is no hint of the balletic style that informs the choreography of Michael Bennett and Jerome Robbins (except in one giddy, funny put-down). This is tougher, smarter, straight-from-the-streets dance, a gritty distillation of a people’s will to survive and prosper.

That Noise/Funk can inspire largely middle-class, middle-aged, White audiences in Arizona to leap to their feet is an argument in favor of its creators’ contention that “Da Beat” is a spiritual force.