Savion Glover and George C. Wolfe brainstormed a whole new kind of musical back in May 1995. Before Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, tap dancing -- from the street corners of New Orleans to the sound stages of Los Angeles -- was pure entertainment. "[It] wasn't being mined for its emotional content. It was lopped off as an art form," says Wolfe, the producer of The Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York. "I wanted to see how we could use tap to convey desires and drives, how it could become a source of delight, intensity, rage or power." And who better to physically articulate Wolfe's ideas than dancer/ choreographer Savion Glover, a man whose feet and legs and snaky spine seemed to find something dark and foreboding in the rhythms of tap.
Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk dazzled the critics with choreography that blew the top off traditional tap with white-hot hip-hop energy. The newfangled dance pounded out a whole heart of emotion -- anger, fear and the most exuberant kind of glee -- and it won Glover a Tony, an Obie and an Outer Critics Circle Award.
It also managed to be educational. The energy of hip-hop and funk and rap and tap was all wrapped around a powerful tale of African-American history, the likes of which Noise/Funk singer Debra Byrd says you don't often see in textbooks.
"For example, early on in the show, during slavery time -- this is something I learned in doing this show -- there were laws passed to prevent slaves from drumming," she says. "It was a form of communication. We were brought here unwillingly, not knowing the language, not knowing each other's languages because so many slaves were brought from different parts of Africa and were unable to communicate with each other. So there became this fear of the drumming [among the slaveholders]. All drumming was banned. You couldn't beat on anything. That's true. It's not made-up stuff."
Byrd, who has traveled with the show for a year and a half, says learning history's unpleasant lessons reminds us "that no matter how much man is inhumane to man, how much [the slaveholders] dished out, we still survived because of the human spirit." "The show is a wonderful journey because you learn things like this," she adds.
After slavery, Noise/Funk follows the great migration north and the Harlem Renaissance. It tells the horrors of lynching in a tune called "The Lynching Blues" and explores Hollywood exploitation of African-Americans in a song about the first black woman to win an Oscar: "Oh, Miss Hattie / You sho' did 'splain the deal / I can make mo' money playin' a maid / Than doin' it for real." Race riots, sit-ins, boycotts, Muslim and Christian street sermons -- all are a part of this history. There is even a taxi scene in which four black men, ranging from a B-boy to a four-star general, stand at a crossroads trying to flag a cab. The screech of the cab speeding away is figured into the rhythm of a tap dance of defiance.
In fact, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk is all about defiance -- defiance and power and reclaiming history. For the act of claiming one's own history, says Wolfe, is "incredibly nourishing and replenishing.... When you fully claim your history, you can soar."
-- Lee Williams
Bring in'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 29, 30 and May 1, at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, May 1 and 2, at 2 p.m. There's also a special $15 matinee, Thursday, April 29, at 1 p.m. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, (713)629-3700. $15-$49.50.