Meta-Rap Flow, Full Blast
Talk about ebony and ivory! Two very, very loud shows opening this weekend playfully redefine a couple of ethnic-cultural niches while shamelessly aiming for the masses. Presented by the Miami Light Project at the Byron Carlyle Theater in Miami Beach is Will Power's Flow. Then, direct from the land of Wonder Bread and inspired by the Star of Indiana championship marching bands, comes the Tony Award-winning Blast to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Sounds whack? We'll see. But both Blast and Flow land in South Florida with the unmistakable buzz of hits, which is perhaps the biggest surprise. Then again, that's show biz.
Will Power is many things: social activist, dancer, slamming rapper, and equally impressive master of stillness. He's been the lead singer for the Omar Sosa Sextet, a scene-stealer in the popular Def Poetry Jam on HBO, a familiar face as an educator in the Miami Light Project's outreach programs, and an audience favorite at the annual Hip-Hop Theater Festival in New York. He received the 2004 Jury Award for Best Performance at HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, though he is hardly your basic stand-up comedian. His acclaimed The Seven, an unlikely adaptation of Aeschylus's war tragedy a good script for some enterprising local company to explore, by the way certainly expanded the horizons of hip-hop theater. A renaissance bro for the 21st Century, Power may well be finding the role of a lifetime in his own Flow. Make that the roles of a lifetime: The stage is mad with people when Power takes it, playing role after role and morphing from his cornrow-sporting sweet homeboy persona to everything from a preacher man to an ancient roach. The man's a storyteller, and his tales flow like a river through the cultural landscape of the land of the free.
Power's Flow is backed by DJ Reborn but always punctuated by the accents of the star's own vocal percussion a sort of insistent, whispered "zoo" and "whoosh" that Power manages to syncopate between the lines as if from another voice far away, keeping a sexy, steady beat pulsating under the words. This is griot, an ancient West African storytelling slave's brilliantly simple way of capturing an audience while keeping toes tapping and eyes on the verge of tears. Call it meta-rapping, if you will. It's something new, or at least woefully rare, in hip-hop.
There is also profanity in Flow, but it is nowhere on the appalling level of what makes it to the Grammys. And there is in Flow none of the misogyny, homophobia and ill-willed, jimmy-grabbing, steel-toting anarchic violence that mars and ruins so much that often defines rap. When Power's rap looks inward, here is an artist at once cherishing and nurturing what is best in a growing tradition that could easily go wrong.
Flow is a suite of seven stories presented nonstop, without intermission a blast.
Blast is something else. It is a set of fifteen musical numbers of baton-twirling, tuba-swinging, and a really big, elite marching band boasting not only the usual drums and brass but also cowbells and sleighbells and more. The music, like pre-Super Bowl entertainment and old-time Orange Bowl parades down Flagler Street, blares all over the map, from Maurice Ravel's inescapable "Bolero" and Ernesto Lecuona's make-every-Cuban-heart-flutter "Malagueña" to Leonard Bernstein's "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story and Chuck Mangione's "Land of Make Believe." Is this über-kitsch? Sure. But it also aims (and comes close to) the unexpected sweet success of such disparate recent entertainments as Riverdance (Who knew Irish line dancing could be a hit?), Stomp (ditto for garbage-pail banging), and that Canadian corporation known as Cirque du Soleil, which may well be the Jackie Gleason Theater's salvation in the near future. Let's not poo-poo this stuff. It continues to make truckloads of money. It even occasionally gathers up respect. Blast already won the Tony for Best Special Theatrical Event as well as an Emmy for Best Choreography. The CD is a steady best seller on Amazon.com. And maybe this bizarre blend of classical, jazz, cha-cha, techno, and very loopy brass is not so strange to a large swath of America.
"To me, it is a celebration of instrumental music and outdoor pageantry," says Blast creator James Mason about his miraculous cramming indoors of all that outdoor spectacle. "Blast is almost like a Disneyesque animation, only the animation comes to life with real people playing the music and interpreting it visually."
Blast grew from the splendor of an award-winning drum corps called Star of Indiana, founded in Bloomington in 1984 and directed by Mason. In 2002 Mason thought to take his band of 100-plus musicians off the streets and into the theater. Like Flow, but with a colorfully contrasting subject, Blast is a new view of cultural history. It is a tale of an all-American institution that may sadly be on its way to history's dustbin as music education in the schools loses its last bit of support. Color guards, drum-and-bugle corps, musical gymnasts, and multitalented marchers who make music as they move all create a moving experience on the streets of towns big and small, and it is the purpose of Blast to make us remember. That's a gift.
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