By Walter Rutledge
The production was an entertaining yet thought provoking interdisciplinary work featuring nine performers. The cast included tap dancers Maurice Chestnut and Brinea Ali, and seven young performers representing the Firehouse Respect Project.
The evening featured dance, drama, spoken word, song, rap, video, photographic projections and live music. The result was an impressively focused presentation, which combined new technology and ideas with time tested stage craft to explored the past and convey the future. In some instances the exploration we went back in time and back to the future simultaneously.
The first act took us from Africa, through slavery, to the teachings of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King. It was interspersed with impeccable tap dancing and modern commentary in the form of music and lyrics by Alicia Keys, Jay Z, and original music/lyrics, rap and prose. The material was presented in a non-sequential order, which kept this fast paced and historically informative first act from becoming a redundant Black History Month presentation.
Production director and curator George Faison cultivated a rich cast consisting of both seasoned professionals and talented neophyte performers. “We take them into the theater when they are 13 and 14 and the first thing we have to teach them is to make eye contact when we address each other” explained Faison. “Many of them go away to college and return to work with us”.
Five of the cast members were return alumni of the Firehouse Respect Project. Among the retuning alumni were balladeer Darryl Farrell, presently is an engineer student on full scholarship at University of New Haven. Sholanty Taylor is a versatile performer and a recent graduate of St. John’s University. Cynthia La Guerre wrote and performed the poem Heartbeats with Maurice Chestnut. La Guerre graduated Cum Laude from Touro College and is entering medical school in the fall. She came to the Firehouse Respect Project at age 12 and composed the poem Heartbeat when she was 14.
Tap is an American art form. Although it melds elements of the Italian Tarantella and Irish Clogging its most predominant component are the rhythms and syncopation of the former African slaves. Like jazz (another American art form) it relies on improvisation, technical prowess and showmanship.
Maurice Chestnut is a true standout. His tap solo set to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. was one the evening’s most powerful moments. When he and Ali tapped together it contained both exciting competitive interplay and playful non-verbal banter.
The second act was a testament to the healing and cathartic power of the arts. Brinea Ali presented a powerful and theatrical autobiography. It was a personal tale of triumph over adversity.
Bassist Luques Curtis and musical director Brian Whitted accompanied solo performer Ali, who tapped, talked and sang about an accident that nearly ended the life of her then six-month-old daughter. The story was told with emotion, and poignancy, and to Ali’s credit lacked undue melodrama. Throughout the second act Ali would give tap instructions to the audience; these audience participation moments would occur when Ali masterfully had us totally immersed in the drama. The tap lesson also illustrated the surreal quality of her life- having to work while her infant child clung to life.
The second act was so strong it could be developed into it’s own one-act evenings work. In this instance it would work to the advantage of the performance by providing more details into the early romantic part of her relationship with her daughter’s father. Video and photographs were skillfully integrated into the second act, which enhanced and personalized the storyline.
Faison and the cast took us on a multi-media odyssey, and they did it with theatricality and style. This feat was accomplished in a very audience friendly 90 minutes. The Word The Game the Dance was a treat, and like most of the productions offered at the theater we wish the run had been extended.