Now onstage at Black Ensemble Theater: a hard-charging, gotta-dance, groovilitastic celebration of the genre of superfreaks and pile-driving downbeats. If you’ve ever sung about (or in fact are) the kind of girl “you don’t take home to mother,” this show is yours.
In a quarter century of Black Ensemble Theater shows, I can recall only one other as packed with dazzle and defiant joy: 2000’s The Jackie Wilson Story, which transferred to New York’s Apollo Theater and starred a very young, pre-Broadway Chester Gregory II. From James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” to an epic mash-up of Bootsy Collins hits, the production will, in the words of Sly and the Family Stone’s funk classic, take you higher.
Our MC for the evening is Dr. Funk (Dwight Neal), whose funny, magnificent entrance introduces us to a man who stays stone-cold cool while wearing silver moon boots and a winged cape with more sparkles than New Year’s Eve at Studio 54 circa 1977.
Written and directed by BET’s producing managing director, Daryl D. Brooks, this two-hour homage to funk explains its history and the subtext to the genre’s crazysexy lyrics and pelvic-thrusting beats. As Dr. Funk explains, the sound is akin to pop but harder, psychedelic, and more about that bass. The look of funk—an audacious array of majestic Afros, spandex and sequins, and bell bottoms—is a playground for costume designer Rueben Echoles, while the songs provide a showcase for music director Robert Reddrick and choreographer Christopher Chase Carter. Reddrick’s seven-piece all-male orchestra (he doubles as conductor and drummer) almost serves as Dr. Funk’s cohost, laying down beats between songs before launching into hits from Earth, Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan, the Commodores, and the Gap Band.
As in all BET shows, there are a lot of expositional breaks between songs—in this case, mostly delivered by Neal as he offers bullet points for the artists on display. What helps makes Funk fly (in all senses of the word) is the lack of dramatic scenes reenacted (or imagined) from the lives of the artists on display. Instead, we get Neal mostly alone between songs, offering history and insights. He’s charming, goofy, and charismatic enough to keep the party pulsing. Add the talented cast’s megacommitment to the material and you get an electrifying production.
It starts with Lemond Hayes as James Brown, leading the ensemble on “Please, Please, Please,” a plea Hayes renders explosive. From there, an incandescently cocky Stewart Romeo takes on Sly for “Higher,” “Soul Clappin’,” and “Dance to the Music”—that last a showstopper even though the show is barely halfway to intermission.
The cast is filled with vocalists with an uncanny ability to find the spirit at the core of the songs. Vincent Jordan gives the simple, swerving vocals of the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” the unstoppable momentum of the Sugarfoot Johnson original. (FYI: I have it on excellent authority that the urban legend surrounding the song is a lie. The scream near the top of the second verse is not a woman getting murdered. It’s a vocalist, going for broke.)
As Rick James, Michael Adkins turns the hair-flipping, unapologetic sensuality up to 11, grinding through “Superfreak” with enough hip-swiveling gyrations and pelvic thrustings to give the front-row ladies the vapors. Adkins also leads the Gap Band’s “You Dropped the Bomb on Me” with end-of-the-world ferocity. And when Shaft (“Shut your mouth!”) shows up in the person of David Simmons’s Isaac Hayes, the audience collectively loses whatever last inhibition it had about singing along.
The women of the genre don’t get nearly as much play as the men in You Can’t Fake the Funk. Chaka Khan gets a formidable moment in Thera Wright’s white-hot rendition of “Tell Me Something Good.” Jayla Williams Craig swipes the female lead on “Car Wash” and the Mary Jane Girls’ “In My House.” She’s sheer charisma, both as a dancer and a vocalist.
In real life, funk was co-opted early: by 1976, “Love Rollercoaster” was in heavy rotation at cafeteria dances in my 99 percent white Wheaton junior high. Whether you understood and embraced funk’s rebellious attitude early or took a few decades to catch on, there’s no denying the power of the funk deployed at BET. As this cast proves, you can’t fake funk. Either you’ve got it, or you don’t. This ensemble does, in all its eye-popping freakazoid glory. v