A free-form history of black America told in the languages of rhythm, blues and tap shoes, “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” is an exhilarating piece of theater that finds astonishing expressive power in a dance form that was until recently relegated to the dust heap of our cultural landscape.
Conceived and directed by Joseph Papp Public Theater artistic director George C. Wolfe, and choreographed by its original star Savion Glover, “Bring in ‘Da Noise” charts the often painful progress of Africans in America, beginning with a stark and simple evocation of the misery of the slave ships, as a beam of light falling from high above the stage picks out a cramped, shivering figure swaying slowly to the rhythm of the ship’s motion, while a mournful voice chants the names of the vessels that became the vehicles of a new history.
In “Som’thin’ From Nothin’, ” the birth of tap dance is seen as an expression of black slaves’ desire to spend a part of their lives moving to a rhythm that was their own, an impulse so strong that when their drums were confiscated, their feet were recruited to make the music. Here and throughout the show, Glover’s inventive choreography expresses in the seemingly limited repertoire of tap an almost limitless variety of meaning, most provocatively in a buck-and-wing number exuberantly danced by Dominique Kelley that turns with chilling suddenness into a pantomimed lynching.
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Although the show skips freely through more than a century of history — touching on the great migration north, the Harlem renaissance, the black power movement of the ’60s — it lingers longest and most resonantly on the moments when the history of the tap art form intersected with the history of the people who created it. It was through dance and music, after all, that black Americans first made their mark on American culture, and the humiliations that were often the price of that back-door entree are vividly epitomized in the “Uncle Huck-a-Buck Song.” Here the team of Shirley Temple and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson are parodied, as Kelley doffs a smoking jacket to reveal a clown suit, and with ingratiating smile frozen on his face dances with a mop-topped doll stitched to the front of dancer Derick K. Grant’s black jumpsuit. “Who de hell cares if I acts de fool/When I takes me a swim in my swimming pool,” he sings to a corny tune in a comic moment tinged with tragedy.
Reg E. Gaines, who supplied both book and lyrics, has his strong moments and his weaker ones. His lyrics are sharp-edged and humorous, but an attempt at a narrative involving the progress in Hollywood of a figure called the Kid isn’t particularly successful and is suddenly dropped. And some of the rap-styled narration is overwritten and impossible to take in, particularly with the sound mix pitched at a level to make the clatter of every shoe heard in the last row of the balcony.
But actor Thomas Silcott and singer Vickilyn Reynolds, supplying the voices that accompany this rhythmic trip through history, are charismatic performers who succeed in holding their own alongside the visceral magic that the dancers create, against simply designed sets highlighted by the expressionistic lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
And indeed the dancing is intoxicating, with the skills of principal hoofers Grant, Kelley, Jimmy Tate and Christopher A. Scott — each with a distinctive style, but all accomplished –showcased throughout. When these dancers are onstage, united in motion or teasing and challenging each other with their individual prowess, they’re eloquently expressing something that cannot be put into words, the ineffable fund of emotions — joy, anger, pride, defiance, sorrow — that are the unique legacy of a sometimes harrowing, sometimes inspiring history.