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A CurtainUp Review
Dial N for Negress
The Blaxploitation genre presented its heroes as giant, muscled, uber-masculine, hypersexual, and violent Black men. But what if Prince had
played Shaft? —Kevin Smith Kirkwood
In 1970, after seeing a history of films featuring African-American actors in marginal, stereotypical roles, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles took another route. He created and scored a stylized, provocative look at race in America, Watermelon Man, immediately followed by a modestly budgeted, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song. This controversial film was both acclaimed and disdained for its starkly realistic look at the Afro-American community highlighted by uncompromising sex and violence. At one point, however, the film managed to wrest the number one box office spot from the year's big hit, Love Story. A genre was born— "e;blaxploitation"e— which soon experienced a downhill quality slide of films with a jittery mix of violence, drugs and laughs while the stereotypes remained.
Kevin Smith Kirkwood
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Dial 'N' for Negress, spoofs the blaxploitation phenomenon. The original genre strove to present the harsh realities of black life, although it looked at impoverished black communities without much more complexity than TV's Good Times. Featured were stereotyped characters and dialogue, heavy on unfairly jailed men, crooked cops, reformed ex-pimps and whores.
Set in 1974, Dial 'N' for Negress, stars co-creator Kevin Smith Kirkwood as Br'er Negress in Soulsville, USA, where every street is crooked and every resident is selling or using. Preacherman (James Solomon Benn) has tried to inspired the jaded townspeople but it is only when Negress returns to town after serving an unjust jail sentence that he sees some promise. Can Preacherman persuade Negress to join him in ridding the town of drugs, thugs, pimps, and whores? Since there is no story unless Negress agrees, what do you think?. Negress easily convinces a hardened group of streetwalkers to turn straight. They all get to work and eventually form Soulsville Community Center and Nubian Resource Foundation, planning a celebratory Community Ball.
There are no surprises to this flip-through plot, but one added dimension is gay discrimination. The superhero Negress, is no Superfly, although he has a powerful super gaze that immobilizes the bad guys. Confident and brash, Negress is flamboyantly gay, sporting a flashy black curl on his bald head and sparkling in wonderfully appropriate costumes by Sidney Shannon. It's all there, white boots with high heels, big, brash and gold-toned neck glam, and always skin-tight pants, all the better to shake that booty.
There is also a Gay Mafia with the usual stereotype, featuring James Solomon Benn (also portraying Preacherman), as Don Finnochio with a tacky, vaguely Italian accent. Says Don Finnochio about his name, "e;That's Italian for queer, you know"e;. In cahoots with the Gay Mafia is a corrupt white cop, Dick McGuffin, who might or might not be gay.
The music originally created for the blaxploitation films was vital and innovative, reaching its apex with Shaft, which won an Academy Award for Isaac Hayes. The beat is drivem with an Afro-beat, whining guitars, the insistent, resonant rhythm and gritty rap lyrics. Evident in Dial 'N' for Negress is the '70's high tinny sound, heavy beat, and savvy spirit. These new "funk blaxploitation" songs do support the slight story, but unfortunately, they do not total up to a strong score, although Jennifer L. Mudge's exuberant, if hackneyed, choreography provides plenty of shaking for bootys of all size.
Directed by Jake Hirzel, Dial 'N' for Negress, has lively moments and an enthusiastic cast, notably ebullient Kirkwood as Negress. Except for Negress who reveals some complexity, and Fancy (Bree Daniels), who elicits sympathy in her portrayal of a spaced-out user, the characters are cartoonish rather than distinctive. The talk is tough and raw but not sharp, and the dialogue is burdened with clichés. Discrimination certainly still exists today, but the blaxploitation viewpoint was made years ago and while Dial 'N' for Negress tries new angles, it comes across now as simplistic and dated.
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Dial N for Negress. Original concept by Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Travis Kramer. Book and Lyrics by Travis Kramer. Music by Tom Oster and Kevin Smith Kirkwood.
Cast: Palin Anice, Tamala Baldwin, J. Cameron Barnett, James Solomon Benn, Katie Boren, Jimmy Brooks, Jr., Bree Daniels, Kevin Smith Kirkwood , James LaRosa, Emily McNamara, Eric Roediger, Julius Thomas III.
Producer and Director: Jake Hirzel
Choreographer: Jennifer L. Mudge
Lighting design: Bill Sheehan
Scenic design: Nick Francone
Costume design: Sidney Shannon
Sound design: Carl Casella and Chris Cronin
Fight choreography: Christian T. Chan
Props design: Justin Joseffy
Running Time: 2 hours, includes intermission
Clurman Theatre: Theatre Row. 410 West 42nd Street
From 9/10/09; opening 9/11/09, closing 9/26/09
Tickets: $19.25 (includes a $1.25 facility fee). At TicketCentral.com or (212) 279-4200, or the Theatre Row Box Office (410 W. 42nd St.). Box office hours are noon to 8 PM daily.
Schedule: Mon., Wed., Thurs., Fri., Sat at 8:00pm. Performance Tues., 9/22/09 at 7pm. Matinee 2pm on Sat.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 9/11/09
"Soulsville"-The Black Community
"Dial N"-The Black Community
"The Bizness"-Negress, Preacherman
"Pimp Knowledge"-Bumpy Ritz, Black Mama, White Mama, Taffy, Candy
"La La La"-Negress, Black Mama, White Mama, Taffy, Candy
"Negress Attitude"-Negress, Black Mama, White Mama
"Thug Song"-Don Finnochio, Antonio, Mario
"The Look"-Negress, Don Finnochio, Antonio, Mario
"Break That Negress"-Don Finnochio, Bumpy Ritz, Dick McGuffin
"Sumthin' Sumthin'"-Negress, Black Mama, White Mama
"Dig It (Can You?)"- The Black Community
"Waitin' On the Phone (To Ring)"-Negress, Black Mama, White Mama
"Dirty Deeds"-Don Finnochio, Bumpy Ritz, Dick McGuffin
"Missin' You"- Negress, Black Mama, White Mama
"S.O.S. (Save Our Streets)"- Preacherman,The Black Community
"Dance Battle"-Negress, Dick McGuffin, The Black Community
"Walk On (Ah'm a Negress Man)"-Preacherman, Negress, The Black Community
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