“Hot Funky Butt Jazz” is a challenging show in the best sense of the word. This Interact Theater production isn’t so much a play as an immersive experience fusing music, history and the combined energies of more than 50 cast members into a lively, pointed and heartbreakingly genuine piece.
Set in the Storyville district of New Orleans in the first decade of the 20th century, this collaboratively created work explores the birth of jazz music within the milieu of Jim Crow and historic disenfranchisement. Trumpeter Buddy Bolden was credited with creating this subversive new form of “hot” music, performed at a venue that was the Union Sons Hall by day and the Funky Butt dance club by night.
Through a series of linked scenes, magically manipulated by voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Zena Moses in a commanding and slyly humorous performance), the audience is introduced to the lively if hardscrabble lives of the people of Storyville. Two such denizens are rival madams Mama May Moreaux (Ivory Doublette) and Fanny Bloom (Sheridan Zuther), who tout the charms of their competing brothels in the lively musical number “Sin in Sin-copation.”
Scenes elide as the massive cast evokes the raucous atmosphere of the French Market, the bawdy backstage of a small-time vaudeville show and the pulsing heat of the Funky Butt in full swing. Director Jeanne Calvit cleverly choreographs her ensemble to allow small cameo gems to arise out of these big, bustling moments: Cayla Pierson as a righteous deacon, recruiting members for the newly formed NAACP; Stephanie Muue as a streetwise young prostitute seeking a way out of her restrictive world; Sam Videen and Jeffrey Haas as a couple of comically cynical drag performers; Laura Mullin as compliant prostitute One-Eyed Sal.
Aaron Gabriel’s music and lyrics infuse the show with energy, while musicians Jeremy Phipps, Eugene Harding, Kymani Kahlil and Matthew Trice bring joyous virtuosity to the Funky Butt house band.
Overhanging the fun of these atmospheric scenes is the unrelenting specter of racism. A constable appears intermittently to brandish a weapon or break up the action. A bevy of outraged white churchgoers sniff disapproval at the much livelier black congregation next door. References to the recent police shooting of a black man abound. The most powerful moment is the “Mista Jim Crow” number, which skewers blackface minstrelsy with bleak and compelling irony.
While this ensemble-created piece occasionally longs for a more focused story line, its improvisational divergences, interwoven threads of themes and plots, and alternating solo moments conjure all the excitement and unpredictability of a brilliant piece of jazz that dares its audience to keep up.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.