Every play is, on some level, a map of the world, a grid of common reference points. The Broadway hit Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk (at the Ahmanson Theater), for example, is a wildly kinetic song-and-tap-dance tour of African-American history that can’t fail to strike a familiar chord with anyone who’s ever spent time in this country. It speaks to as wide an audience as it does because its “signposts” are so recognizable: from American Colonial history to the Harlem Renaissance, from AME churches in Georgia to hip-hop on the streets of NYC, from the arts of vaudeville and tap dance to today’s music videos.
Noise/Funk — conceived by George C. Wolfe from an idea he shared with Savion Glover, whose original choreography has here been re-created by Derick K. Grant — is a remarkable piece of showmanship, a tiny miracle locked inside a big, splashy musical, as ebullient as it is short-lived, as ephemeral as a sugar rush.
If you remember Wolfe’s play The Colored Museum, a series of sketches deploying (and commenting on) black stereotypes, you’ll recognize its imprint upon Noise/Funk, which takes us on a similarly song- and skit-driven journey through time. Early on, as in Museum, we find ourselves on a slave ship, watching the bare-chested Grant, draped in white rags, sitting on the floor, bathed in Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s MTV-style lights — lights so vivid they seem to splash prison bars across the otherwise empty stage. (The words “Slave Ships” are projected over the scene, above historical renderings beamed across an upstage scrim.) Soon Grant is on his feet, tapping out a gentle rite of endurance against a lyrical narration.
With Reg E. Gaines’ book and lyrics, and music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark and Ann Duquesnay in styles ranging from blues to rag to gospel to funk, Noise/Funk rolls set piece after set piece (all by Riccardo Hernández) in and out of view like so many pageant wagons, each representing a subsequent era.
A self-supporting wooden frame dangling pots and pans provides a backdrop for “The Panhandlers,” a musical sketch featuring Dennis J. Dove and David Peter Chapman, similarly festooned with kitchen utensils. Put a pair of drumsticks in their hands, and no surface goes untapped. Syncopation thunders from the stage in layers of precision and beauty, harking back to a kind of jaw-dropping vaudeville entertainment that tests the limits of human dexterity.
A multiplatformed iron grid crossed vertically by a kind of fireman’s ladder represents the Age of Industrialization. Here, Jimmy Tate, Christopher A. Scott, Dove, Grant, Dominique Kelley and Chapman perform a balletic, percussive symphony, employing not only their tap shoes but chains, sticks and, finally, the steel trash cans that decorate the upper tier — all punctuated by a factory whistle. An amalgam of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Aussie dance show Tap Dogs, this man-as-machine spectacle of choreography and sound is not just awesome, but infectious — a quality emanating from the performers’ evident giddiness over their onstage triumph.
Touches of satire emerge, as when Vickilyn Reynolds — the sole female cast member — performs a parody of Josephine Baker in a segment devoted to the Harlem Renaissance. Then there’s The Kid (B. Jason Young), who comes West looking for “the beat” of a heart that’s been smothered by habit and history. On a Hollywood set, he spies a Stepin Fetchit–y “Uncle Huck-A-Buck” (Kelley), who remarks with a demented grin, “I’ll play the fool for a swimmin’ pool.”
All of which leads, chronologically at least, to our very own mid- to late-century urban streets — to the cartoon sheen of Paul Tazewell’s raggy, baggy costumes, to “conk-heads” and gospel and hip-hop, to a kind of goofy, slouching, listing dance, to four black men (one a young soldier sporting Colin Powell’s autobiography) unable to hail a taxi . . .
In an interview a decade or more back, Wolfe, already one of our theater’s brightest sparks, spoke about his rage over being left out in the cold, arm out, as available cabs pulled close and then, after noting his skin color, whizzed away. The tiny miracle of Noise/Funk is not its history lesson, or even its abundant gloss. The miracle is in how it turns anger into art rather than malevolence. It’s in a certain feeling that defies analysis, a feeling that arises from the barely discernible clicking of Grant’s strut. It’s in the agility and the angularity of four dancers sloping in contrary directions, each standing on one toe, arms and legs splayed. It’s in the way this musical has taken rage and turned it into euphoria.
Down the street from the Ahmanson, in an inti mate studio theater at Los Angeles Theater Center, a pair of new one-acts by Cheryl Slean comes off about as esoteric as Noise/Funk is commercial. None of the mostly white characters dances in Fall or The House of Muzzle Loading. Rather, they stagger — Beckettian entropy informs Slean’s view every bit as much as tap-dancing propels Glover and Wolfe’s. Yet these two worlds share some striking similarities: They both employ minimal set pieces. They both rely on archly poetical dialogue and narration. They both arrange their scenes in chronological rather than dramatic sequence. And they both share a fury that bubbles up from an essentially spiritual core. The main difference between them lies not so much in their contrasting tones, or skin colors, as it does in their respective maps.
Where Wolfe capitalizes on familiar historical reference points, Slean constructs her iconography from a curious assortment of comparatively arcane sources, starting with Native American mythology and working ahead to the more accessible working-class world of Southern California’s foothill communities, all of this sprinkled with a dash of feminism. The result is largely academic, and only slightly familiar.
Slean herself directs The House of Muzzle Loading, in which an Armenian-American gun shop in Glendale is managed by an incurably romantic young man named Nick (the appealing Tom Keeney), who falls for lesbian Daf (Jessica Margaret Dean) and, in a welcome touch of wistful comedy, takes her for a spin in his ice-cream truck. Then, alas for Nick, Daf is smitten with the Armenian girl next door (Andrea Portes), a body waxer — Daf even pierces her nipple for her. The play also involves a crooked-eyed Armenian matriarch (Tina Preston) quizzically spouting horrors from the Old Country. Filled with truthfully eccentric performances, this delicate play is no larger than the sum of its oddities.
In Fall, under Diane Robinson’s ambient direction, a Sea Creature (Shanti Reinhardt) dangles on a suspended platform and speaks of toxic waste and the end of the world. On the stage below, her prophecy is more or less played out around a pool table by a forlorn, pregnant young woman (Shawna Casey) and two deranged yet vaguely affable fellows involved in dog breeding (Mark Fite and Jack Kehler). Characters make dripping-wet entrances as a storm of apparently biblical proportions rages outside. Meanwhile, a Native American woman (Christine Avila) says all manner of provocative and symbolic things.
I suppose this is a play about birth and blood, flesh and flood, about beginnings and endings — or maybe just endings. Women treated like dogs? At least no one can accuse Slean of spoon-feeding us her message. One might, however, charge her with a certain lack of courtesy, for sending us through Sylmar with a map printed in Mayan.
BRING IN ’DA NOISE, BRING IN ’DA FUNK
directed by GEORGE
Book and lyrics by REG E. GAINES
DARYL WATERS, ZANE MARK and ANN DUQUESNAY
Choreography by SAVION GLOVER
DERICK K. GRANT
At the AHMANSON THEATER
135 N. Grand Ave., downtown
Through April 26
FALL and THE HOUSE OF
By CHERYL SLEAN
At LOS ANGELES THEATER CENTER
514 S. Spring St., downtown
Through March 28