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I can’t say what the best play of the 2022 National Black Theatre Festival is – I haven’t seen them all – but You Can't Fake the Funk: A Journey through Funk Music performed by Black Ensemble Theater of Chicago gets my nomination for Most Likely to Get You Out of Your Seat and Dancing in the Aisles.
If you’re looking for an event to get you out of your easy chair and into the swing of the National Black Theatre festivities, look no farther than this show.
We are extravagantly welcomed to the "Mothership" by master of ceremonies Doctor Funk, a semi-deadpan actor, Dwight Neal, in bison horns, aviator goggles, and a raven-feathered cape. He totally pulled off this look, as did all the singer-dancer-actors who started the show in contrasting white and silver costumes that dazzled the eye and reflected the constantly changing lights.
Written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks, the show takes us on a wild and funky ride from James Brown’s invention of funk with its hardedge downbeat driven by guitar, bass, and drums to George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic that takes funk into the stratosphere of psychedelia.
AllMusic, the online music database, states that "James Brown may have invented funk, but Sly Stone perfected it," and Doctor Funk tells the story of Stone’s journey from radio DJ to funk icon. Stone put together a big band with friends and family, hence Sly and the Family Stone, and took funk to the next level by fusing it with rock, soul, gospel, and psychedelia.
We got to hear "I Want to Take You Higher" and "Dance to the Music" while Black Ensemble dancers pranced and strutted up the aisles to rally the audience into dancing. We didn’t require much persuasion.
Then came Ohio Players with their smoldering "Fire" and rollicking "Love Rollercoaster," followed by Rufus and Chaka Khan’s breakout hit, written by Stevie Wonder, "Tell Me Something Good," establishing Khan as the Queen of Funk.
The breakout hit for Lionel Richie’s Commodores, "Brick House," ("she mighty, mighty, lettin’ it all hang out") came about when band member William King’s wife, Shirley Hanna-King, listened to a jam session recorded that day in the studio and wrote the lyrics to it while he slept. "Shake it down. Shake it down now," and everybody did.
Other songs in the show included, Earth, Wind and Fire’s "That’s the Way of the World (Hearts of Fire);" Isaac Hayes’ "Shaft;" Curtis Mayfield’s "Super Fly;" Rose Royce’s "Car Wash;" Dazz Band’s "Let It Whip" (take that, Devo); the Bar-Kays' "Holy Ghost;" Cameo’s "Candy" and "Word Up;" Bootsy Collins’ "I’d Rather Be with You;" and, of course, Rick James’ "Super Freak." The latter was a highlight of the show, with the actor playing James strutting in a sparkly black unitard, twinkling red boots, and swinging locks, tantalizing unsuspecting audience members.
The grand finale featured an actor portraying the great George Clinton (who is still performing at the age of 81) and his Parliament-Funkadelic showcasing "We’ve Got the Funk" and "Flashlight," much to the lively audience’s delight.
Seven splendid musicians – three horns, bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums – partnered the wonderful ensemble performers.
Whether for an old-school funk fan or someone dipping their ear into the genre for the first time, You Can't Fake the Funk: A Journey through Funk Music was an expertly performed and immensely enjoyable show that immersed the audience in the glorious, outlandish world of funk. And definitely: Don’t fight the funk.
You Can't Fake the Funk: A Journey through Funk Music continues through Saturday, August 6. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
NOTE: The Black Ensemble Theater’s executive director, Jackie Taylor, also helped develop The Jackie Wilson Story with Chester Gregory, which has been so popular with festivalgoers since it debuted here in 2001. Gregory is doing a version of that show, The Eve of Jackie (The Last Time), in this year’s National Black Theatre Festival, which he says will be his last portrayal of Wilson.