CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In the beginning there was the beat.
SAVION GLOVER, Dancer/Choreographer: The beat is basically what takes you through life, you know, whether we have an up tempo beat or a slow beat. It's just a beat. There will always be the beat, you know, and there's rhythm in everything.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And then choreographer Savion Glover adds what he calls "da noise."
SAVION GLOVER: My noise is not like how loud it is, or, you know, saying how loud I talk or how loud I dance or whatever, my noise is how it comes across through my work.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And then comes that intense but indefinable musical essence, the funk. And it's all that in "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk," the exuberant musical that is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway.
There's a featured singer, an actor, and a couple of drummers, but holding center stage for over an hour and a half are five black male dancers whose tapping feet chronicle the history of African-Americans from the days of the slave ships--right on up to the 1990's and the frustration of a black man trying to get a cap.
Critics have lavished praise on this production which recently moved to Broadway, following a successful run off Broadway at the Public Theater. George Wolfe, the Public Theater's producer, created and directs "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk."
GEORGE WOLFE, Director: I have this whole theory that particularly black Americans, that we've lost our original languages, so our languages live in different places in our bodies, and it comes out in all sorts of different kinds of rhythms, of the way we talk, speak, or move, so I think that tap is one of those manifestations of expressing a lost language in the body.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And yet tap is not uniquely black.
GEORGE WOLFE: No, because I think it's intrinsically American, but I think that what, what the African-American artists have done with it is a very specific and very unique and wonderful thing, particularly this sort of, uh, what I like to call a more rugged hoofer style which, of course, I learned from Savion, is just really--fascinated me because it is, it isn't just rhythm. It really feels--not just rhythm but very specifically the drum.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Wolfe directed the 1992 Broadway hit "Jelly's Last Jam," which featured an 18 year old Savion Glover playing the young Jelly Roll Morton. Wolfe says watching Glover dance inspired him to explore African-American history through what he called this powerful folk tradition.
GEORGE WOLFE: Savion was like this living repository of rhythm. He inspired some sort of little abstract intellectual concept of exploring the relationship between history and rhythm and, and seeing how history defines the rhythm and how, and how rhythm is reflective of history, need it be slavery--or the turn of the century or the migration of the South to the North or whatever--you had these artists, Savion, as well as the entire company, making it personal and making it into--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The First Act history lesson ends with the 1920's. After intermission, the play explores the images of tap made famous in Hollywood films of the 1930's.
(PEOPLE SINGING AND TAPPING)
GEORGE WOLFE: It's sort of like a film noir tap satire of the coopting of tap by Hollywood, but also dealing with the personas that various black performers had to take on in order to express their art. Uncle Huckabuck.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Uncle Huckabuck.
GEORGE WOLFE: And Little Darlin'.
MAN SINGING: Don't worry about me. I'm the shiftless fellah. I got lots of money and a fine High Yella--
GIRL SINGING: Wheee. Tell me Uncle Huckabuck, what's a High Yella?
MAN SINGING: Why darlin', that's the name of my horse.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: At least one critic has found this portrayal of Bill Robinson, the legendary Mr. Bojangles featured in countless Shirley Temple films, excessively harsh. Wolfe said that was not his intent.
GEORGE WOLFE: We're not telling the story of Bill Bojangles Robins, which I think is a very complicated, wonderful, and amazing story. What we're examining are very--is--which is true of any form--what prototype or stereotype an artist very often in this country to this day has to embody in order to do their work.
I mean, it goes from everything from being, you know, the shiftless coon to the dumb blond. If you want to find passageway into mass media exposure, more often than not, particularly if you're an actor, singer, dancer, you have to, you have to embody a dynamic or stereotype that allows for easy access for everyone to get it. So that's what we're exploring.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For his part, Savion Glover is quick to pay tribute to the tap dancers that have gone before him, especially Jimmy Slide whom he calls the best. But Glover, a 14 year old prodigy when this film was made, did more than look. He took the steps of the masters and made them his own, syncopating the shuffle--and the old buck and wing.
For anyone who has followed 22 year old Savion Glover's career, this hit comes as no surprise. While pays tribute to Jimmy Slide as the best, others, like Gregory Hines, call Glover the greatest tap dancer who ever lived.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you have a sense of mission about what you're doing?
SAVION GLOVER: yeah. My mission is just to, you know, put like, I guess, da funk in like, like--just to funktify everybody, like just to let everybody know that tap isn't like, you know, this corny, washed up art form. You know, I'm saying, it's new, and it's, you know, it's raw. You know what I mean? It's today.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you're from another generation. (laughing) So what do you think? How do you see it?
GEORGE WOLFE: Well, I think the fact that noise funk is up town does so much for sending a healthy, healthy signal to the people who think that theater and particularly Broadway have absolutely nothing to do with it. You can see--they could go there and see something, and that would not be just a bad British import or a revival, that their face, their energy, and I'm just talking about black artists, I'm talking about young white kids, young black and Asian kids are finding themselves in this show, and I think that's, that's very, very, very, very healthy and very, very, very, very, very important, you know, because for--you always have to introduce whatever you care about to the next generation so they will honor it and protect it. They care for it. And I think this show has contributed to that dynamic.