I attended a recent production of Bring In'Da Noise, Bring In'Da Funk. This production was comprised of the 1996 Tony Award winning all African-American cast and was performed at the Ambassador Theater. Due to the ticket cost, most of the audience was middle aged, although approximately fourty percent of the audience was African American and thirty percent appeared to be under age 30.
The Ambassador Theater itself seemed pretty small. There was the lower "orchestra" level (which was slightly below the stage) and a higher balcony level. For this particular production, a highly visible sound board that one would normally see in a studio or a radio station took up the back eighth of the "orchestra" section. Because of its multilevel design, the theater seemed to hold 200 reasonably well in a building that should seat half that amount.
Bring In'Da Noise, Bring In'Da Funk didn't have a traditional orchestra. The playbill credited six musicians, and two of them were on the sound board. The only live instruments were reeds, a trumpet, a harmonica, a guitar, a bass, and "drums." The drumming was done onstage by performers Jared Crawford and Raymond King. Crawford and King used such nontraditional items as pans, chains, and plastic industrial buckets for drumming.
Perhaps the most prominent instrumentation was tap dancing. Bring In'Da Noise is a musical about tap dancing, and under the choreography of lead dancer (and co-creator) Savion Glover, the tapping sounds just as musical as Ann Duquesnay's singing, the improvised drumming, or the piped-in instrumentation.
The music in Bring In'Da Noise is heavily improvised and jazz influenced. There are also numbers based on spirituals, black-imitating-white-imitating-black minstrelsy, and even rap. There is a percussive current throughout the musical. The drumming complements the tapping, and both drumming and tapping are used to pound home the themes of slavery, lynchings, the deception of a better life up North, and how rioting and violence hurts everyone involved.
Bring In'Da Noise contains approximately 27 scenes. The dancers and singers are anonymous except in one act. The action shifts thoughout African-American History. It starts with the horrors of the slave ships. Then there is the "Pan Handlers" scene, which is the improvisation that results after a screen on top of the stage announces that South Carolina has outlawed drumming.
Ann Duquesnay's jazz singing highlights "The Lynching Blues," in which the dancer tap to a narration of worthless charges used to dignify lynching. "Chicago Bound" highlights in narration and silent action the story of an African American man lured to Chicago by the Chicago Defender's, promise of a well paying, "cracker free" environment. The anonymous man finds an industrial job in Chicago. When he departs work, he looks for the nightlife but finds riots, police brutality, and death. The scene ends with Ann narrating the Defender's claims of a better life for African Americans in Chicago while a screen above the stage details the deaths caused by rioting and a much harsher reality.
The location shifts to Harlem for the "Dark Tower- Whirligig Stomp" scene. A man (Jeffrey Wright) plays the part of an affluent African American who listens to a cultured singer (Ann Duquesnay) and speaks of Harlem as an affluent black paradise.
The next section (the only one with conventional characters), called "Where's The Beat?", tells the brief story of a kid (Dule Hill) who comes to Los Angeles to conquer the tap world. He is thrown out of one studio. In another studio, he meets Uncle Huck-A-Buck (Baakari Wilder), an African-American "sellout." Uncle Huck-A-Buck taps better than his young white female co-star (a large doll attached to Savion Glover), but she keeps asking "why do I make more than you?" The kid then flees to a bar full of the "hopeless," and in deparation taps to anyone who will witness him.
"Green, Chaney, Buster, Slyde" is a one-man scene with Savion Glover narrating the influences in his dance career while tapping in their styles. The next act, "Street Corner Symphony" details more in soul singing (and a staged phone conversation) than in dance the decline of Harlem. The act concludes with Ann singing in a gospel style the decline of her neighborhood while Jeffery Wright does a solo rap with the same themes.
The last scene before the finale (a reprise of the title and opening song) is "Taxi," which depicts the futile struggle to get a cab for four African Americans. One flashes a gold credit card, another an autographed copy of Colin Powell's book, but neither gets the cab. At the end of the scene, the four tappers do a finger gesture any normal New Yorker would have done immediately after being refused a cab ride.
I was impressed by Bring In'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk. The tap dancing was as aurally expressive as it was visually expressive. The "Taxi" and "Street Corner Symphony" sections evoke both humor and sorrow- something that is very difficult to pull off. The "Pan Handlers" and "Industrialization" pieces are amazing in their execution. They are reminiscient of the British performance troupe Stomp. Overall, Bring In'Da Noise, Bring In'Da Funk is a great way to relive the history of tap and African-American music.

April 1997/BC Excelsior  1