Monday, November 5, 2018

Hot Funky Butt Jazz Defines True Inclusion

"Folks always tryin' to kill what they can't understand, for whatever reason"


Photo courtesy of Interact
It's rare, but sometimes something comes at me so fresh and so unexpectedly that it takes my breath away.

I had the pleasure of just such an experience last weekend at Hot Funky Butt Jazz, a new musical by Interact theater on stage at the Guthrie's 9th floor studio space (meaning: $9 tickets to all performances!! #getatit). I went to the show because I love jazz and the hook of the plot - the real history of New Orleans jazz as told by infamous voodoo queen Marie Laveau - was just way too tempting to turn down. It was clear, however, that I was in for so much more from the very opening scene, depicting a second line jazz funeral for Laveau that included the most diverse range of faces and bodies that I've ever seen on stage.

If  I'd really done my research, this wouldn't have surprised me at all. This performance is put on by Interact, which "creates art that challenges perceptions of disability." The gorgeous array of humans in this performance certainly upholds that mission and provided so many delightful cameos. The cast is easily the largest I've ever seen in the black box space, as well as the most diverse. Performers ranged from able bodied to people with physical disabilities to people with downs syndrome and more, each a part of the story in a totally organic way that allowed their talents to shine. It was a pleasure to see everyone incorporated so naturally, almost at detriment to the plot at times (there are a lot of asides) - but it was fine, because everyone clearly had such a good time and brought such joy to the audience. This is also a show that takes intentional, responsible risks - such as honestly portraying the history of minstrelsy, Jim Crow dance and even black face without actually using black face - a fact which I really respected and a model I think other theaters who get caught up in being literal (but not always thoughtful) could learn from.

Photo courtesy of Interact

Hot Funky Butt Jazz wouldn't be possible without the spectacular talents of Zena Moses, who oozes swagger as Marie Laveau. Moses has a luscious contralto that comes straight from New Orleans' shores, and I could have listened to a solo concert of just her all night long. The additional musicians playing live - Jeremy Phipps, Eugene Harding, and Kymani Kahlil - do a great job of livening the stage with their bright instrumentation. The rest of the cast shares pretty equal time with one another despite its large size, but there were still a few additional standouts. Naa Mensah (featured in the first photo of this article) brings *all* the heat as Essie. She has several interludes of spunky dance solos that got the audience really engaged. And Messiah Moses Albert is totally charming as the adorable young Louis Armstrong. I hope he retains his interest in theater as he gets older.

I went to Hot Funky Butt Jazz expecting to hear some delicious jazz music, learn a few things I didn't know, and have a pretty standard night at the theater. Like jazz music itself, what I got was a far messier but more beautiful reality. The array of truly diverse performers having the time of their lives is something that will stick with me for a long time, and provided a new standard for what inclusive art really looks like. It's a fun performance that will teach you about the history of jazz music, have you in and out in less than 90 minutes, and spark all sorts of ideas about the unexplored possibilities in representation. It's a reminder that you can be responsible and truthful about the dark times of the past, and still engaging and positive all at the same time - and don't we need more of that attitude in the world? I think it's definitely worth scooting to the Guthrie to see this before it closes on November 18. For more information about Hot Funky Butt Jazz or to buy tickets, click on this link.