Academic journal article African American Review

Noise/Funk: Fo' Real Black Theatre on 'Da Great White Way

Academic journal article African American Review

Noise/Funk: Fo' Real Black Theatre on 'Da Great White Way

Article excerpt

Son of Jim Crow, Grandson of Ole Massa, is alive, vicious, well, and busy making babies to ensure that his progeny will inherit his legacy of unearned privilege, arrogance, and domination. In balanced opposition to that culture of tyranny grew a defiant and innovative African-American culture determined to prove and assert its full membership in the global human family while tenaciously holding onto its identity as a unique cultural group bound together by the experience of race.

The institutional arms of White Racist Culture (WRC), from capture to detainment to transport to enslavement to Jim Crow to present-day, recycled Dred Scottisms and Plessy v. Fergusonisms, and have diligently and cleverly enforced WRC's agenda to deny Black folks true and full human respect. Faced with this massive onslaught, Black folks in America created a counter-culture, Black Moral Culture (BMC), which, against all perceived possibility and reason, delivered love and self-respect. Fueled by cultural memory, by the perverse Pan-Africanization process of The Middle Passage and experiences of slavery and/or quasi-freedom in America, Black folks held onto something, reshaped something, and constantly reinvented that reshaped-something which is at the core of its phenomenal odyssey through history. That something is metaphorically called 'Da Beat, and it is on exquisite display in Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk.

Noise/Funk does what few plays on Broadway, and even fewer Black plays on The Great White Way, have been allowed to do: articulate a thesis. As if collaborating on a history book, the creators of Noise/Funk brainstormed the scope of their research, organized it into chronological chapters, and, quite importantly, determined its purpose. This last places Noise/Funk squarely in the history and tradition of Black Theatre. The preferred style of blending a didactic purpose with entertainment values is a long-standing tradition in the history of African-American dramatic art.

William Wells Brown's The Escape; Or, A Leap to Freedom (1858) is the oldest extant African-American play script. In this historic play which Brown based on his own experiences as a slave in the South, with the purpose of appealing to White folks of good conscience to support the abolition movement, Brown told his story with the theatrical devices of the day, which are quite melodramatic by our modern standards. But what Brown did was set into motion a tradition that most Black dramatists and theatre artists employ to this day. His purpose was fourfold: (1) to tell his story through his own experience, (2) to engage the audience through entertaining means, (3) to validate the common experience of Black folks, and (4) to appeal to the goodwill of White folks and, through logic and pathos, petition them to join the righteous battle against racism and oppression. Later, Angelina Weld Grimke would follow this model in her landmark 1916 play Rachel, as would Richard Wright and Paul Green (Native Son, 1941), Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun, 1959), and many others whose plays put race up front as their central issue.

The challenge of the Black musical play to adhere to the didactic model is that it is victimized by the WRC's belief and practice that African-American musical talent is charming, entertaining, and meaningless. Outside of the Black Theatre domain, where musicals have long been used as a powerful arm in its cultural artillery, the history has been one of Blacks, in the more benign sense, entertaining Whites and, in the more malignant sense, ridiculing and debasing themselves for the sport and pleasure of Whites eager for casual enjoyment and/or validation of their own sense of superiority and entitlement.

The legacy of blackface minstrelsy has claimed many individual casualties, and placed upon the image of African Americans, as a whole, the masks of Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, Savage Brute, Coon, Sambo, Pickaninny, and Tragic Mulatto--and all of their variations and reincarnations. …

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