DC’s Funk Vernacular on Display

b4_windmeupmaria_marthaguerrerobadillo2Go-go music buffs have descended upon the Gonda Theatre. The first go-go musical in the university’s history, “Wind Me Up, Maria!: A Go-Go Musical” began its run on Nov. 3 and is playing through Nov. 12. A large-scale collaboration among the theater and performance studies program and student-run groups Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society and the Black Theatre Ensemble, the show revitalizes a local subgenre of funk popular in the mid 1960s and early 1970s.

“Wind Me Up, Maria!: A Go-Go Musical” is the second show in the Davis Center’s 2016-2017 season, which is themed “Discover and Celebrate.” The idea for the production originated when Professor Natsu Onoda Power, artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center, first introduced her go-go musical to her students. At the time, she envisioned a show comprised of ‘70s dancers, skirts and tall boots.

Together with music producer, children’s group “The Capital Kidds” educator and D.C. go-go band “Rare Essence” lead singer Charles “Shorty” Garris, Power created a homegrown version of the capital’s funk music. “The Capital Kidds” are an educational tween hip-hop group founded and run by Garris as part of the Innovative School of Performing Arts to educate children through the arts.

“The musical certainly came about from an on-going discussion about diversity and integration within Georgetown’s theater community,” Power said. “There were some concerns about proactive roles available, there was a need for facilitating greater inclusion and diversity.”

The story follows Georgetown’s rising senior and aspiring go-go singer Maria, played by Myiah Sahulga Smith (SFS ’20). Although Maria is an exceptional singer, she just “hasn’t found in what way,” in the words of her best friend and roommate, the business-driven overachiever Morgan Adams, played by Vanessa Chapoy (COL ’18).

Following the path of classics, such as “Mary Poppins” or “The Sound of Music,” the production’s central character is a nanny, with supporting roles held by a blended ensemble of Georgetown students. “The Capital Kidds,” go-go professional D.C.-based musicians — renamed “The Graveyard Band” in a nod to the Davis Center’s location overlooking Georgetown’s Jesuit cemetery — and famous go-go groups, such as The Junkyard Band and The Backyard Band, all contribute to the performance.

The plot revolves around Maria’s summer dilemma. When the play begins, she still has yet to find a job, as opposed to Adams, who has already packed copious pencil skirts and tops “perfect for light blazers” for her internship at a prestigious company. Professor Sherry Kalorama, played by Kate Ginna (COL ’18) offers Maria a convenient employment opportunity as a live-in tutor for six children in a Georgetown household. She introduces Maria to her friend, a successful single mother and wealthy doyenne, Ms. Kay Street — played by Mar J. Cox (COL ’16) — who struggles to balance motherhood with her school-building projects in Malawi and other humanitarian efforts. Over the course of the summer, Maria teaches the kids about the roots of ’70s go-go, correspondingly allowing the audience to learn a few things too.

“This is the culmination of a heartfelt tribute to Chuck Brown and go-go music, which has never really broken out of D.C., even though a lot of go-go music is used in popular music,” said assistant director Velani Dibba (SFS ’17). “It’s about this sort of meeting between Georgetown culture and go-go music culture, which are very different.”

Dibba emphasized the importance of the collaboration between northeastern D.C. artists and Georgetown students.

“A lot of the band members are professional go-go musicians in D.C. and had never worked in a theatrical production before. On the reverse side, we have a lot of students who had never heard of go-go before working on the show,” Dibba said.

The plot thickens as Joseph, played by Ray Gao (COL ’19), the eldest Street family member, self-described as a “highly intelligent, yet socially awkward, young man,” falls in love with Terrance, his UPS deliveryman, played by Jonathan Austin Kyle Compo (NHS ’20). To add suspense, Terrence steals the wallet belonging to Maria’s charmingly obnoxious love interest, Barnaby Woods, a confident, smooth go-go music producer, played by David Toledo (MSB ’19). In a mix-matched intrigue, Joseph uses Terrence’s stolen wallet to sneak into a go-go show, which results in a muddled escape once his fake ID is taken.

One of the show’s most memorable songs, “Run Joe,” comes during Joseph’s getaway. With an established tension gripping the audience, the band is given momentum in this number, dominating the stage with vibrant percussion and Shorty’s smooth voice. The track follows Joe’s run home, as he is scared for his life, and has a go-go-tempo, filled with trombones and a quirky beat.

“‘Run Joe’ is the song from which I built the rest of the play,” Power said. “I basically just wanted a valid excuse to have this great song onstage. It has such a high-speed energy that just makes something wake up inside you.”

Power’s favorite song from the show is the “SAT Song,” which was co-written by Power and Garris.
“We are so proud of the SAT song, just because of how specific and whimsical it is at the same time. We’re thinking about releasing a full version with all the SAT prep words, which will probably make it a two-day song,” Power said.

The versatile go-go performance would not have been possible without Garris’ Capital Kidds, who choreographed most of the songs and brought an authentic perspective to the musical, filling it with their awe-inspiring energy.

“Without ‘The Capital Kidds,’ the show would definitely be lacking a huge chunk of culture, because they are all native Washingtonians. They’re from the [D.C., Maryland and Virginia area]. They bring go-go. They bring the funk”, Smith said. “We can’t imagine the show without them.”

With its musical originality, the play attempts to convey a positive message about go-go music.
“Go-go music is our music, and it is the best thing about D.C.,” Power said. “This musical isn’t here to question the controversies that have unfortunately been built around it but is here to celebrate this great tradition all Washingtonians have in common.”

Certainly having fun with her own creation, Power does not hesitate to drop dialogue sequences with bite. With lines such as “He’s my sugar daddy … He brings me candy,” Joseph does not hold back. She even added entire runs spontaneously two days before the show’s debut.

Gao, who worked with Power this past summer to set up a show in Boston, witnessed firsthand her refusal to stop creating.

“Things maneuver really quickly in the show. That’s her style, and it’s really beautiful,” Gao said.
Gao also said it was an immense pleasure to work with professional go-go musicians brought in by Garris.

“It was eye-opening. We got to hear the best stories about D.C. from them. I got to see where Shorty is coming from. He really wanted to give back to the community,” Gao said.

“Wind Me Up, Maria!: A Go-Go Musical” will have shows at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11 and Saturday, Nov. 12. A matinee showing has been added on Saturday due to overwhelming demand.

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