Like most in the audience, I rose to my feet to applaud the virtuoso cast of Bring In ’Da Noise, Bring In ’Da Funk. But I also was struck by a question: Just how new was this much-touted reinvention of tap dancing? The answer: not as much as advertised, though it was well worth the ride. At their most original, producer George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, 24, have echoed the rhythms and style of rap music and hip-hop in the feet, dress and in-your-face attitude of the dancers. It’s a heart-pounding, sometimes breathtaking updating of the art form. It makes for great entertainment and will spur at least a temporary surge of interest in tap. This show is also meaningful in another way: With the venue of a hit Broadway show, Glover and his dancers have mainstreamed jazz tap, the art of improvising tap percussion as you go. At the same time, Noise/Funk serves up a compelling, disturbing dose of African-American history. But the show’s take on tap itself, while also compelling, is less accurate, quietly dismissive of women tappers and unfair to certain black performers of the past.
In Wolfe and Glover’s vision, tap originates as a uniquely soulful and African-American response to oppression. And that’s pretty much where it remains for the show’s two hours — from the depiction of a lynching to the futile efforts of four black men trying to hail a cab in New York City. It’s no mean feat to make tap represent something other than “happy” in scene after scene, but Noise/Funk pulls it off (even without Glover, who’s not in the L.A. cast). The show also pays homage to black performers who were relegated to a Jim Crow–enforced obscurity — Jimmy Slyde, James “Buster” Brown, and the late Isaiah “Lon” Chaney and Chuck Green.
Noise/Funk falls short, however, in positioning tap as the intellectual creation and rightful historical property of black Americans alone. That’s a forgivable sin in context, but less acceptable is the virtual exclusion of women dancers, who also made a contribution to the art and who have been overlooked here. Perhaps even more troubling is the show’s portrayal of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, who happened to achieve more Hollywood (i.e., Anglo) recognition than Glover’s particular heroes.
At the opening of Act 2, Bill Robinson appears as Uncle Huck-A-Buck, who dances next to a giant rag doll named Lil’ Dahlin’, a send-up of Shirley Temple. “Who de hell cares if I acts de fool when I takes me a swim in my swimming pool,” croons Huck-A-Buck. Meanwhile, the Nicholas Brothers are re-created as Grin & Flash, tuxedoed shallows who distort rhythm tap into a showy but simplistic Hollywood perversion called “flash tap.” It’s powerful theater, and a just drubbing of Tinseltown, but it is not how these performers should be remembered.
After the performance, I thought back to conversations I had with Eddie Brown, a black rhythm tapper who died in 1992 after a lifetime of near poverty. Brown was every bit as shunned by show business as any of Glover’s mentors. Yet Brown harbored no animosity toward “successful” black performers. Brown knew Bill Robinson, so he knew better. So does tapper and choreographer Leonard Reed, 91, who produced shows for black and white audiences (usually separately) starring Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.
“The cleanest dancer I’ve ever known,” Reed says of Robinson, who made it to Hollywood only as an older man, after years of starring in live theater, on and off Broadway. “He had more imitators than anybody. And he wasn’t a rich man. I don’t understand this stuff about being a sellout.” Reed, who is black, and others not only mention Robinson’s skill, but also his generosity to other performers.
As for the Nicholas Brothers, “they got to Hollywood on their talent,” says veteran tap instructor Paul Kennedy, whose alums include three Noise/Funk cast members. Kennedy loves the show, but, he adds, “No one told the Nicholas Brothers to grin and flash. Harold Nicholas should have been in the same roles as any leading man in Hollywood.” Instead, he and his older brother Fayard had to settle for dance cameos — without a line of dialogue — in star vehicles for white performers.
Adds Reed, “The biggest hand they got is when they did the flips and splits. They were good tappers, but they found that the acrobatics stopped shows, and that’s what show business is all about. No one in that era or this era is comparable to them.”
(A hobbled but still spirited Fayard Nicholas attended the Los Angeles opening of Noise/Funk days after the death of his wife. Like an old pro, he refused to complain about the portrayal.)
The much-maligned style of “flash tap,” by the way, was not some racist Hollywood confection, but a legitimate, difficult tap form that emphasized wings and fast dancing to up-tempo music. In its own way, it was great stuff. As is the modern, more subtle rhythm tap of locally based troupes such as Rhapsody in Taps and the Jazz Tap Ensemble, or the youthful exuberance of Al Desio’s Colburn Kids Tap L.A.
Savion Glover’s floor-pounding percussion has rightfully claimed its own place of honor. But contrary to the hype, Glover’s style doesn’t deserve to supplant performers of today or yesterday who may hoof to a different beat.
Associate news editor Blume is also a tap dancer and instructor.