Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sly and Superfreaky: Black Ensemble Theater Aptly Proves 'You Can't Fake the Funk' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

You Can't Fake the Funk
A Journey Through Funk Music
written & directed by Daryl D. Brooks
Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago
Thru Sept. 22


It's a great word and a fantastic form of music.

But particularly in the latter parlance, it's hard to define.

Per Wikipedia:

Funk is a music genre that originated in African-American communities in the mid-1960s when African-American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). 

Funk de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions and focuses on a strong rhythmic groove of a bass line played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a drummer, often at slower tempos than other popular music. Like much of African-inspired music, funk typically consists of a complex groove with rhythm instruments playing interlocking grooves that created a "hypnotic" and "danceable feel". Funk uses the same richly colored extended chords found in bebop jazz, such as minor chords with added sevenths and elevenths, or dominant seventh chords with altered ninths and thirteenths.

OK, but what does that really mean?

Principally because of their name, I can confidently say that Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk--led by George Clinton and long featuring the great bassist, Bootsy Collins--primarily plays funk.

And sure, I can cite James Brown--often referenced as the progenitor of funk--as well as Sly & the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire and many other great African-American artists, but some of their songs were funk, and others weren't.

So in attending You Can't Fake the Funk at Black Ensemble Theater and pretty much knowing it would be terrifically enjoyable--I've seen several BET shows and the entertainment value is consistently stellar--I wondered how much Daryl D. Brooks' script might enlighten me. 

Brooks also directs the show, and in the program notes he writes:

"While writing and directing this show, I wanted it to just be a big party."

In that regard, he certainly succeeds. 

Clearly inspired by George Clinton, as well as others, Dwight Neal's "Dr. Funk" character serves as a groovy Master of Ceremonies who introduces the many funk luminaries represented onstage. 

And as you can't have funk without fun, the whole affair most definitely is.

Accompanied by BET's funky band--backed by musical director Robert Reddrick on drums--every song performed is pretty much a joy. 

I won't name every tune, as some surprise adds to the element of glee, but we get James Brown's "Cold Sweat," Sly & the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," the Ohio Players "Love Rollercoaster," Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" and much more, and that's just in Act I. 

Yes, there's also some P-Funk, but acts such as Rufus & Chaka Khan, GAP Band, Dazz Band and Cameo are also represented, with many songs I did know and some I didn't. 

The show's talented ensemble of nine singers & dancers besides Neal nicely rotate the through the various funk icons--including a properly coiffed Rick James--so I'll just list everyone.
First the men: Michael Adkins, Blake Hawthorne, Lemond Hayes, Vincent Jordan--who I believe was the one who wowed as Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire--Brandon Lavell, Stewart Romeo and David Simmons. 

Jayla Williams Craig and Thera Wright were both delightful as well, including in representing the Mary Jane Girls, whom Rick James produced. 

If you're looking for a good time, you'll assuredly get it at You Can't Fake the Funk.

But while I loved the 2 hours spent in the BET's lovely auditorium, I didn't get much more clarity as to what defines funk. 

It's possible some of the song selections and omissions have to do with rights clearances, but I would've expected something by Stevie Wonder--"Higher Ground" perhaps--and while I know a song like "Good Times" by Chic gets automatically categorized as disco, it seems it could have correlated nicely with some of the second act numbers. 

Also, whither Prince. 

Obviously, not everything can or should be included, but I was left without much more awareness as to what constitutes "funk"--and why--and what doesn't. 

BET shows are usually heavier on music and paying tribute than on biography or theatricality, and I don't say that as a great detriment.

Particularly in this case, Neal's Dr. Funk kept the pacing strong and did provide decent capsulized introductions to the artists being showcased. 

So by all means, this is a recommendation if you know you love funk, or the acts I mentioned as being celebrated here.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with loosening up and shaking your ass to some great music, well-performed. 

I was just hoping to learn a bit more while having my mind--rather delightfully--kept in a funk.

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