IF YOU GO:
What: Drumline Live
When: 8 p.m. Thursday at Playhouse Square, Cleveland; and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at Benedum Centre, Pittsburgh.
Tickets: Playhousesquare.org, Cleveland; pgharts.org, Pittsburgh.
By John Benson
There’s no doubt that dotting the “i” with the Ohio State University Marching Band is something special. But some traditional black-college marching bands have created something so special it’s like a whole new genre.
The quick-paced and very athletic bands were highlighted in the 2002 film “Drumline,” which starred actors Nick Cannon and Orlando Jones. Attached to that project as a consultant was Don P. Roberts, who now is the creator-director of global-touring production “Drumline Live,” which makes its Cleveland debut Thursday.
“‘Drumline Live’ is a theatrical production based on the band experience at historically black colleges and universities,” said Roberts, calling from Melbourne, Fla. “After working on the movie ‘Drumline,’ I kind of had the vision to put something similar on stage. We started in 2005 as “Halftime Live,” which was an abbreviation of ‘Drumline Live.’ We didn’t put our first ‘Drumline Live’ show up until 2008 when we toured Japan and Korea. This is now our second U.S. tour.”
“Drumline Live” features explosive choreography that goes way beyond the spectacle of a marching band. The versatile cast of musicians and dancers brings nonstop energy and athleticism to an eclectic mix of sounds. Equally at home with the great brass tradition or the hottest contemporary hip-hop, R&B or Motown, “Drumline Live” members have honed their precision with years of training in marching-band programs across the southern United States.
The cast of 38 performers tells a journey that begins with the origin of the drum in Africa all the way up to big-band music of the ’30s and ’40s, soul music of the ’60s and modern rap and R&B sounds.
“It’s moreso a musical revue than anything else, and the narrative is basically attending a historically black college and university and being a part of the band program,” Roberts said. “You’ll get jazz, hip-hop, R&B. That’s the experience the narrative gives. It’s very clever, and I would tell people if you‘re expecting to see the movie ‘Drumline,’ you’re going to see something better.”
The production promotes the tradition of the show-style marching band that began more than 50 years ago at Florida A&M University, long considered the nation’s pre-eminent black- college marching-band school. After the Civil War, historically black colleges and universities were established mainly in the southeastern U.S. They were bastions of higher learning to give young black students an opportunity to become professionals during a time when colleges practiced entrance discrimination.
Though originally the marching bands began to support the college football team, over time the groups have become their own entity, featuring characteristic high-stepping, funky dance rhythms and imaginative repertoires ranging from classical to Top 40. It’s this same vibe that Roberts said has helped “Drumline Live” enthuse audiences around the globe.
“You could say that it’s high energy,” Roberts said. “We touch every emotion of your body. We want to make you laugh, applaud, cry, and we’re going to make you feel like you’re a part of the show. When we went to Japan, the promoter gave us a lecture about how the Japanese people wait and will applaud at the end, but we had them on their feet within five minutes. That’s what we plan on doing in Cleveland. It’s very exciting. It’s a family-oriented show.”