By Colin Douglas
In the late 1960’s, African American musicians created a rhythmic, very danceable new form of music that combined soul, jazz, rhythm and blues. They called it Funk.
One particular singer, the brilliant entertainer James Brown, is credited with writing and recording the first song of this new genre. Some argue that it was “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag;” others claim that it was his pulsating “Cold Sweat” that launched this unique musical form. It would grow beyond being simply a novelty or a trend and blossom into its own style. It makes little difference which song began the movement, Funk Music continues to hold an important place in American pop culture.
Doing what the Black Ensemble Theater does best, Producing Managing Director Daryl D. Brooks has written and directed this dazzling, ebullient and creative new show that practically rocks the theater on Clark and Sunnyside off of its foundation. Brooks was inspired by the title of Funk group, Parliament’s fourth hit album, “Mothership Connection” in creating You Can’t Fake the Funk: A Journey Through Funk Music.
He uses the conceit of a spaceship that can transport the audience through time and space, taking us back to a world where Funk was king. Along the way, tribute is paid to many of the important African American musical artists of the 1960’s, through the early 1980’s. The musical revue is hosted by the fictional Dr. Funk, an alien emcee character, who’s played with whimsy and spirit by charismatic BET favorite Dwight Neal. The nine gifted actor/singer/dancer/musicians in this production breathe infectious life into an array of exciting soulful musical legends, singing and playing almost three dozen hits from the archives of Funk.
The show begins with the entire company rocking out to Funkadelic’s greatest song, “One Nation Under a Groove.” Then we meet the Father of Funk, Brown, singing two of his hit tunes that are credited with inaugurating the Funk Music scene: “Please, Please, Please” and “Cold Sweat.” Next, Dr. Funk helps us transition to Sly and the Family Stone, with “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Soul Clappin’” and one of the best songs of the evening, “Dance to the Music.”
From there we move on to the Ohio Players and their winning songs, “Fire,” “Skin Tight” and the brilliantly choreographed “Love Rollercoaster.” The undisputed Queen of Funk was, and continues to be, Chaka Kahn. Written by Stevie Wonder, Rufus and Chaka Kahn’s “Tell Me Something Good” became a smash in 1974, with its unique use of the guitar talk box. Here the funky tune delights the crowd. The Commodores captured the country with their funky, 1977 number one song, “Brick House.” Although this entertaining revue provides more music than memoir, the backstory of how this song was born is fascinating. Next we visit the Gap Band for their 1982 electrofunk achievement, “You Dropped the Bomb on Me.”
The first act concludes with a salute to the musical group that VH1 declared to be “one of the greatest bands ever,” Chicago’s own Earth, Wind & Fire. Rolling Stone called the group, “innovative, precise yet sensual.” Brooks presents the group’s sensational “Let’s Groove, “That’s the Way of the World” and closes the act with a rousing ensemble-driven rendition of “September.”
Act two opens with a choreographed musical montage from the movies, that includes Isaac Hayes’ theme from “Shaft,” Curtis Mayfield’s pulsating “Superfly” and Rose Royce’s throbbing dance tune, “Car Wash.” From there we segue to the catchy “Let It Whip,” the biggest hit song recorded by the Dazz Band. We pay a visit to the popular 1980’s quartet called The Mary Jane Girls, for their hit, “In My House.”
Rick James, known for his shoulder-length dreadlocks and tight bellbottoms, is represented in this delightful revue with a medley of his top tunes, including “You and I,” “Bustin’ Out” and the engaging “Super Freak.” Next we pay a visit to the group called Cameo to hear their two top tunes, “Candy” and “Word Up!” Bootsy Collins’ winning hit, “I’d Rather Be With You,” Brides of Funkenstein’s knockout, “Disco to Go” and George Clinton’s 1982 top-selling, “Atomic Dog” all serve to warm up the audience up for the grand finale: Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk” and the dazzling “Flashlight.”
In addition to Brooks’ topnotch direction, the show features Robert Reddrick’s typical masterful musical direction. His astounding, seven-member onstage band is Vegas-calibre, particularly trumpeter Marvin Davis. Christopher Chase Carter, whose impressive choreographic talents have taken him to Porchlight, Mercury and the Court theaters, makes this production dance with pep and pizzazz. Bek Lambrecht uses a turntable as a major component of his creative, flying saucer-inspired scenic design. The performers appear and disappear through what resembles a stylized airline baggage claim. Denise Karczewski’s dazzling lighting design and Breon James’ superb projections highlight Lambrecht’s work. BET Renaissance man Rueben Echoles has again outdone himself by creating a spectacular wardrobe of colorful and captivating costumes and wigs that transform each performer in minutes.
In addition to the devilishly delightful Dwight Neal as Dr. Funk, the talented ensemble includes the talents of Jayla Williams Craig, Thera Wright, Brandon Lavell, David Simmons, Michael Adkins, Blake Hawthorne, Stewart Romeo, Lemond Hayes and Vincent Jordan.
In what will be remembered as one of Black Ensemble Theater’s finest musical revues, Brooks has written and directed an excellent, exhilarating show that’s guaranteed to bring audiences to their feet. No theatergoer will be able to remain quiet and serene while watching this magical, magnetic salute to Funk Music. If the tunes don’t set your feet a-tapping, if the beat doesn’t set your body bending and bopping, you’d better check your pulse: You might be dead!
Black Ensemble Theatre presents “You Can’t Fake the Funk: A Journey Through Funk Music” through September 8 at the Black Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.