The unbearable whiteness of ‘Oklahoma!’ In new Broadway revival, the blinding sunshine of the Territory exposes the violence beneath the romantic myth

Though it hasn’t always been acknowledged, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has always been a musical about whiteness.

This is important because a new and well-reviewed production is now running on Broadway. Oklahoma! has often been summarized through a lens of racial neutrality as a romantic musical about a woman named Laurey Williams trying to make a choice between two suitors: Jud Fry, a hard-working farmhand who lives in the smokehouse of a farm owned by Laurey and her Aunt Eller. And guitar-strumming Curly McClain, who is more socially adept, but doesn’t offer much beyond a pretty face. Set in the Claremore Indian Territory of Oklahoma in 1906, Oklahoma! delivers a rose-tinted view of history that centers on happy white people whose greatest concern is a town dance that will raise money to build a new school. It’s a classic example of willful erasure and ahistorical mythmaking.

In 1838 and 1839, President Andrew Jackson forced thousands of Native Americans to abandon their homes east of the Mississippi. Even though Oklahoma was the end point of the genocidal forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, Oklahoma! doesn’t feature a single Native American character. In fact, its only explicitly nonwhite character is Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler who seeks romantic encounters that don’t come with marital strings.

Jud Fry (played by Patrick Vaill, left) might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man.

Little Fang Photo

Director Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down revival of Oklahoma! doesn’t play by those rules, though. In this version, now running at Circle in the Square Theater through Jan. 19, Laurey is played by a black woman, Rebecca Naomi Jones. Laurey’s best friend, Ado Annie, is played by Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, the first actress to do so on a Broadway stage. When Stroker won the Tony for best actress in a featured role in a musical in June, she was the first performer who uses a wheelchair to be nominated, much less win.

Suffice it to say, this ain’t your granny’s Oklahoma! The musical, which won the 2019 Tony for best revival, has been popularly characterized as “Sexy Oklahoma!” That’s largely because of the horny howling of its handsome leading man, Damon Daunno, who plays Curly, and its shamelessly libidinous Ado Annie. But I did not find Oklahoma! to be sexy so much as darkly terrifying — and I mean that in a good way.

That’s because this version, which faithfully maintains the original script and lyrics of the 1943 musical while updating the orchestrations with modern arrangements, subjects toxic whiteness and masculinity to the glaring bleach of the noonday sun.

Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them.

The revival is unique because of its deft interrogation of the whiteness and toxic masculinity that has long been romanticized in the American western, and in the many treacly iterations of Oklahoma! that have been mounted since 1943. This version asks its audience to consider a familiar world in an unfamiliar way: through the eyes of a black woman with little to no physical security or power of her own.


The first thing one notices upon entering Circle in the Square is the aggressive brightness of the room’s lighting (more than a few members of the audience wore sunglasses through the performance). The second is that the walls are lined with racks upon racks upon racks of shotguns.

The lighting turns out to be subversive. Much like a black light held over the surfaces of a sketchy motel room, it illuminates all the ickiness lurking on surfaces that appear otherwise innocuous. It welcomes you to the Oklahoma territory, where flowers fill the prairie and the june bugs zoom, and then it ensures that you cannot turn away from the ugliness that lurks there. “Everything’s going my way” certainly applies to the men of the Territory. But its female residents? Not so much.

Tony winner Ali Stroker (left) plays Ado Annie and Will Brill (right) is Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

It’s strange to see Oklahoma! when the horrors of mass shootings (most recently in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas) are still in the shallow recesses of one’s consciousness. But mostly, I was reminded of violence specifically linked to virulent misogyny, and so Alek Minassian, Elliot Rodger, and George Sodini entered my mind within minutes of the introduction of Jud (Patrick Vaill). Minassian, Rodgers, and Sodini are white men who committed mass murder because they were angry, lonely, and felt entitled to attention from women when they weren’t getting it. Minassian identifies as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate.

There is a rhythm to the news of mass shootings, and one beat in particular is frustratingly metronomic: The killers, more often than not, have a history of abuse or antipathy toward women. In Oklahoma!, Jud is armed with an unshakable crush, a shifty attitude, and a revolver. Vaill imbues Jud with a patina of gentle shyness, underneath which beats a familiar pulse of resentment, entitlement, and a violent temper precariously held in check. Jud might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man. It makes for a terribly dangerous combination for Laurey.

To survive in the modern world, women develop a spidey sense about men who would potentially harm us, and we mold our lives around the avoidance of male aggression. We move to a different subway car if someone stares a little too long, or brushes up a little too close. We slow our gait to let someone pass rather than take the chance that he may be following when we must walk late at night. And we get very good at managing — managing expectations, managing tempers, and managing egos.

The same reality of ever-present male danger is true for the women of the Territory. For them, the most effective way to guard against it is to get married. (Nothing sucks the romance out of courtship quite like knowing you’re seeking a man in hopes that his presence will prevent your rape or murder.) Laurey has a decision to make about who she will choose for the dance and her life afterward: Curly or Jud? By Laurey’s second interaction with the seemingly mild-mannered Jud, I felt my stomach grow queasy with worry. Oda Mae Brown from Ghost made an entrance in my notebook: “Laurey,” I wrote furiously, “You in danger, girl!”

Before Fish reimagined her, Laurey was usually portrayed as a lucky woman blessed with a surfeit of romantic possibilities. Nowhere is that more clear than in Fred Zinneman’s 1955 film adaptation. In Zinneman’s Oklahoma!, Laurey is played by Shirley Jones, a sunny, self-assured blonde whose good looks, tiny waist, and homespun charm are enough to tame any man.

When Shirley Jones sings “Many A New Day,” she’s surrounded by white women pirouetting in bloomers and petticoats, and she’s laying out a philosophy that Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider would come to monetize some four decades later in The Rules, possibly the worst self-help book about dating ever published. Essentially, it is a doctrine that tells women that all their power and moral authority lie in their sexual availability or lack thereof, also known as playing hard to get.

But this display of performative reluctance isn’t an indication of power, so much as the lack of it, especially when you consider the presence of armed threats like Jud. From the beginning of the musical, Aunt Eller is telling Curly how much her niece likes him, no matter how much Laurey’s behavior indicates the opposite. It’s strategic: Aunt Eller’s trying to provide some security for Laurey, in the limited way that she can, by playing matchmaker. Sexual violation is a constant threat for women, even for Ado Annie, who is generally portrayed as a ditsy, well-meaning slut with her rendition of the song “I Cain’t Say No.”

Stroker’s Ado Annie, on the other hand, delivers a rollicking, proudly sex positive rendition of the song, a recognition of the character’s agency.

Still, in both scenarios, Ado Annie’s choices are protected by her father’s ever-present shotgun — to a point. She may get around, and she may like it, but she’s still got to marry somebody, and furthermore, someone with money. Ado Annie’s father insists that a man vying for her affections have at least $50 to his name before he’ll let him marry her. (Remember, it’s 1906.)

Laurey doesn’t really have two viable options so much as she’s faced with making a choice between a man who will almost certainly kill her if he doesn’t get what he wants and a well-meaning dunce who thinks the height of being gentlemanly means getting down to the dirty business of dispatching the Territory’s resident incel.


Jones is not the only member of the Oklahoma! company who is black, but her blackness serves to reinforce just how vulnerable and disenfranchised Laurey is in a place where men hold an overwhelming amount of sociopolitical power and women have nearly none. That social order is enforced and maintained with guns:

  • When Ali Hakim won’t commit to Ado Annie, her father threatens him with a shotgun.
  • When Jud and Curly want to intimidate each other, they shoot holes into the roof and wall of the smokehouse.
  • When Laurey finds herself in need of protection from one bad man, it comes from another wielding — you guessed it — a gun.

Jones plays Laurey as a woman moving through the world with tense, uneasy reluctance. At times, she exhibits an attraction to Curly, but it never seems to permeate too deeply, perhaps with the exception of the dream ballet (danced with magnetic athleticism by Gabrielle Hamilton) that explores Laurey’s subconscious. It concludes with Laurey’s id scooching crotch first offstage toward Curly — she’s made her “choice.”

But even when Laurey agrees to marry Curly and enters the stage in her wedding dress, she’s bereft of the glowing, floaty ebullience typically associated with brides. Instead, the subtle hesitations in Jones’ movements and the drawn expression of her face leaves the viewer wishing poor Laurey had a trusted maid of honor to ask, “You OK, sis? I got the horses in the back if you want to ride east ’til we can’t ride no more.” It’s a beautifully crafted performance, full of simmering internal contradictions that Laurey dare not raise aloud. She seems more resigned than anything to spend her life with Curly, if only because he provides protection from the Juds of the world and she knows that she needs it.

Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones, right) eyes Curly (Damon Daunno, left) as he serenades her in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

I could not help but see parallels between Laurey and the protagonist of Test Pattern, a new film from director Shatara Michelle Ford that premiered earlier this year at BlackStar Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. Test Pattern explores the aftermath of sexual assault for a black woman living in Austin, Texas, named Renesha. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is in a loving interracial relationship when she is sexually assaulted during a celebratory night out with a friend. (Coincidentally, the two works share an actor; Will Brill plays Hakim in Oklahoma! and Renesha’s boyfriend Evan in Test Pattern.) Like Laurey, Renesha ends up spending a great deal of time managing the emotions of two white men, one of whom is ostensibly “good” and the other who is “bad.” It turns out the two men are not so different. Like Jud and Curly, they both prioritize their own wants over the needs of the black woman who is the object of their desire or devotion. This is not accidental. In both the Territory of 1906 and modern-day Austin, the world is constructed to serve these men, and that’s what they’ve come to expect. This is their version of neutral.

Oklahoma! becomes a jaunty horror show when Laurey is splattered with Jud’s blood on her wedding day after Curly guns him down and the entire company belts out a lively rendition of “Oklahoma.” The residents of the territory ignore the cancer infecting their community in favor of singing, dancing, and the avoidance of discomfort, in much the same way that no amount of tragic deaths seems to spur meaningful action on gun control.

Ultimately, Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them. The artists will even serve you chili and cornbread during the show’s intermission. The timing is key — better to eat a bowl before pore Jud is daid, when its contents can’t remind you of his bullet-blasted innards.

Kareem says ballers just want to have fun on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ The 71-year-old Abdul-Jabbar may break out a skyhook in one of his routines

The skyhook: Starting with precise footwork, rising through a leg lift, torso twist and arm extension into the stratosphere, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s signature move remains basketball ballet — and the most unstoppable shot the game has ever seen.

Now we get to see Abdul-Jabbar translate his refined athleticism to the dance floor. On April 30, the six-time NBA champion and top scorer in league history begins competition on the live season premiere of Dancing with the Stars: Athletes. Partnered with Lindsay Arnold, last season’s winner, Abdul-Jabbar will compete against the likes of Notre Dame hoops heroine Arike Ogunbowale and the NFL’s Josh Norman to see who can fox trot, cha-cha and quickstep their way to a different kind of title.

Abdul-Jabbar is one of the more intriguing contestants on a show where athletes have won 10 of 25 seasons. At 7 feet, 2 inches, he’s almost 2 feet taller than the 5-foot-4 Arnold. He’s also 71 years old, the author of 14 books and an activist for racial justice with a well-earned reputation as a serious thinker. In a contest that rewards glam and flash, what attracted a straight-laced scholar? Abdul-Jabbar, who spoke with The Undefeated by phone, says he signed up simply to have fun. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Kareem, what about this experience looks fun to you?

Well, just the challenge of dancing with a professional dancer. You have to know what you’re doing, and you really have to have it nailed down. It’s not just something you go out and do. You have to plan and you have to learn the whole get-up. You need a much better and precise idea of your spatial awareness and movement and everything. It takes a lot of planning and practice. It’s a humbling thing, but it’s made me appreciate what dancers do even more.

What’s been the most humbling aspect?

Just how hard it is to remember a sequence of moves, and you have to pull it off to make it look spontaneous.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots a skyhook over a 76ers player during the 1982 NBA finals at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Is there any comparison between remembering dance sequences and learning basketball plays?

No, it’s entirely different because dancing is down to every precise step. You don’t have to go to an area and do something. At every moment, you have to take steps in coordination with your partner and do something exact and coordinate it with her.

Lindsay, what’s the biggest challenge to dancing with someone so much taller than you?

Right now, it’s more just about making sure that Kareem feels confident and comfortable doing the steps because this is something totally different, totally out of his element. So right now, the height difference is kind of the last thing we are thinking about. We are just trying to get those steps down so that Kareem feels good about it and hope that people enjoy watching us.

Kareem, you’re known as a thoughtful, serious person. Where has this fun, carefree side been all these years?

It’s been here, it’s just that there is a time and place for everything. But I’m not one-dimensional. My family knows me like this, that I have a playful side and I’m interested in having a good time and enjoying life. My dad danced in the 1930s; he did the Lindy Hop. He danced with Savoy [Ballroom] dancers. He knew those guys and danced with them and knew those moves. So dance is a big deal in my family, and I hope if I do well enough my dad will be looking down and smiling about it.

How does preparing for this competition compare with the physical aspect of preparing for basketball?

Well, you know, we don’t have to do a whole lot of running. We do 4 to 6 miles in a basketball game. So it doesn’t wear you down like that physically — well, not yet. But the mental part of it, you have to coordinate and make your body execute. Some dances, the guys that do ballet that have to leap and stuff and carry the ballerinas, those guys you’ll have a lot of respect for them if you try to do some of the stuff that they do.

“Dance is a big deal in my family, and I hope if I do well enough my dad will be looking down and smiling about it.”

How is your body doing at age 71? Are you still in shape?

Well, I can’t go out there and play in the NBA, but I feel like I’m in good enough shape to execute these dances. It’s not like I have to get ready to run. This is fun, and it’s not going to wear me down. I think that Lindsay is the perfect person to get me ready.

Lindsay, I can’t resist: Can you choreograph a skyhook into any of these routines?

I mean, I’m not going to say anything. But tune in on that first episode and you might just get what you are asking for. We’ll see.

Because the skyhook is probably the most graceful, balletic move that we’ve seen in basketball.

It’s so beautiful. I feel like we would be crazy not to do it in our dancing.

Kareem, how nervous are you about dancing in front of millions of people?

I’m not nervous. I had to go out there and play a very tough game in front of millions of people. The toughest thing for me was running into people that had bet against the Lakers. There was still that resentment there, you know?

I get it. You touched on this earlier, Kareem: Could you elaborate a little bit on what elements of teamwork translate from basketball into this dancing performance?

Easy. You have to understand your teammate. You have to know her moves and how to be ready, and you have to do everything you can to make her look good and she will reciprocate. That’s how it works. We talked about the history of all of this, you know. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers come to mind. That’s classic Americana.

Lindsay, what are you hoping to accomplish with Kareem this season?

First of all, it’s very cool that Kareem is doing this show. I mean, he is 71 years old. He’s a legend with his own skills, and he’s taking a risk coming out and doing this show. He’s taking on the challenge. It’s very rewarding to know that I get to take Kareem through this journey and really show America a new side of him because he is so much fun. We have so much fun in rehearsals that I can tell that he has so much passion for life, and I’m excited for America to see that.

Kareem, when this journey is over, what do you hope people know about you?

Well, that I like to have fun. That I can dance and still enjoy life, even at 71.

Parker Curry, a little black girl just being her own amazing self Ever since the photo of her staring at Michelle Obama’s portrait went viral, she’s become a star on the toddler circuit

An hour before her big moment, Parker Curry was doing the same thing that the rest of us were doing at Nationals Park: shivering. With a game-time temperature closer to freezing than not for the Washington Nationals’ home opener versus the New York Mets, standing on the field meant dealing with the just plain cold weather outside. Her pink bubble parka was in tow, but the cameras were out, and she was wearing her Bryce Harper jersey with matching white Converse Velcro Chuck Taylors, so it was time to stunt.

For Parker and her mother, Jessica Curry, this was a slightly less controlled environment than usual for her media appearances, but also the least personal. The 3-year-old rose to fame when a photo of her staring at former first lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery went viral, and since then she’s become a star on the toddler circuit.

“Life has been busy, but good busy,” Jessica explained. “A lot of people have reached out to us for appearances and things like that, and for the most part things have normalized. We’re back to ballet, we’re back to gymnastics. I’d say now it’s been about three weeks since she took the picture … and every week we’ve had a number of opportunities and we just take it one day at a time, and whatever we think is a good opportunity for Parker then, we’re open to.”

The run has been pretty meteoric. She got to actually meet Obama, which for many people would be the highlight of a lifetime. She also got to appear on Ellen, America’s Adorable Child Show of Record. Ellen DeGeneres did her best not to act like she wasn’t tight about the fact that Obama stole her bit and danced with her, but it was all good. They re-enacted the photo moment instead. In all seriousness, the online sensation made it all the way to CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, cementing her status as the most precious child in America for 2018.

But on Thursday, a lot was going on. Both teams had to be introduced. There was a national anthem to be sung. There were accolades to be handed out. Fireworks were going off, and on top of that, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser had just arrived to help with Parker’s portion of the show. Before that, she’d taken a quick potty break to make sure things didn’t go awry before the big moment, but now that we were here, the scene was a tad hectic.

Like many grown-ups would probably be likely to do when feeling a tad overwhelmed, Parker cried a little. For a 3-year-old, surrounded by a crowd of 40,000 people, with people yelling her name and sticking cameras in her face, it was understandable. Luckily, there was a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie to the rescue nearby to lighten her mood.

Bowser, whom Parker had met previously — her mother is a D.C. native and a baseball fan who goes to a fair number of Nats games — was there to yell “Play ball!” and officially open the season. Parker, although a star, isn’t exactly a method actor yet, so relying on her to deliver the line wasn’t easy. Thus, the two rehearsed. They practiced their pageant waves, and Bowser went over the script. “I’m going to say, ‘On behalf of Parker, myself and all Washington Nationals fans: Let’s. Play. Ball!’ ”

By the time the two had scrambled on top of the dugout to deliver the line and get the game started, Curry was just hanging out, watching her child dazzle a ballpark crowd with the mayor of her hometown. Which led to the question, exactly how hectic is this child’s life? Curry, who runs Happy Mama Happy Babies, a motherhood and lifestyle blog, says she’s not letting things get out of control.

“It’s not stressful because of the fact that I realize that to some extent, I’m in control of the situation,” she said. “I don’t interrupt her nap times, I don’t interrupt her meal times, I don’t take away her activities that she does on a usual basis. If something comes up and it works with the schedule that we already had, that she already had before all this happened, then we do it. And if it doesn’t, then we don’t do it. I’m not letting it get to a point that I’m stressed out.”

Sometimes, however, plans do change. Lunch with the mayor was not exactly on the schedule, but what can you do? By the time we got into the Delta Club at the yard, Parker was walking around the dining room with her giveaway towel looking for food. Up until that point, it had been a day like any other. They’d had a big breakfast at home, and according to mom, she was hoping to see Muriel, her new close personal friend, at the game.

Overall, though, Curry is just glad that they’ve gotten the opportunity. For outside onlookers, the appeal is obvious. And in a world in which our children are so often portrayed in ways that are unfair to every part of their being, Parker’s life is a window into an existence we saw more of: a little black girl just being herself.

“It’s been really cool; we’re really blessed. I feel really honored that so many people are kind of interested in Parker, and interested in following her,” Curry said. “We’re back to doing everything that we normally do. Going to the library, going to museums, hanging out. It’s just that now there’s way more people watching what we’re doing. I’m happy to have the opportunity to inspire other parents to do cool stuff with their kids and inspire their little kids to do great things.”

But we gotta be real. The stunt factor is no joke. Most 3-year-olds don’t have the kind of Rolodex that Parker does and Curry has to manage that, no matter how ridiculous it may all seem.

“I no longer deal with the regular 3-year-old tantrums,” she said with a laugh before brisking off to eat. “I’m now dealing with tantrums that include pleas for Michelle Obama and Muriel Bowser and Ellen [DeGeneres]. These are the types of women that I have to deal with her asking for when she’s upset with me.”

Some call that Black Girl Magic.

In honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Dance Theater of Harlem tells its audience to ‘keep movin’’ Dancer Carmen de Lavallade and civil rights activist Xernona Clayton were feted at the company’s season-opening performance

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago reverberated through society, bursting through in riots across the nation but also in less obvious decisions. It was King’s death on April 4, 1968, for instance, that prompted Arthur Mitchell to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Mitchell was on his way to Brazil to start the National Ballet Company of Brazil. But in the wake of King’s death, he decided to return to Harlem, New York, the following year and founded a dance company and school in the basement of Harlem’s Church of the Master.

Wednesday night, 50 years after the death that ultimately led to its founding, Dance Theater of Harlem opened its performance season at New York City Center with a celebration of King’s legacy. It did so by honoring one of his most trusted deputies, Xernona Clayton, and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, who brought a magic to the stage that exalted in the joys of blackness.

Last month, the company had announced its new season with a video starring its students that connected the movement of dance with The Movement.

Wednesday night, the students recreated the performance on stage, accompanied by Tony Award-winning singer and actress Lillias White singing “Keep Movin’.” They even added a quick Wakanda salute to the choreography.

The program connects social movements with bodily movement, and so the company honored Clayton with a performance called Change, introduced by Michelle Miller, a correspondent for CBS who called Clayton her “fairy godmother.” Besides her work on civil rights, Clayton became the first black person to host a talk show in the South in 1967 and later went on to become an executive at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Besides heading King’s advance team, Clayton was a close friend of the King family. She’s featured in the new documentary King in the Wilderness, where she revealed how she used her own makeup compact to hide the clay filling King’s face as he lay in his coffin after Coretta Scott King expressed horror at the job done by King’s undertaker.

In a nod to the oft-unseen women, like Clayton, of the civil rights movement, Change featured three women dancing to the vocals of the Spelman Glee Club. At one point, the onstage lights dimmed and the atmosphere grew ominous. The voices of the Glee Club rang out — Don’t let nobody turn you ’round — and the dancers emerged, arms interlocked, determined to power through whatever followed.

Clayton addressed the movement’s gender gap in a phone interview Wednesday morning.

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then,” Clayton said. “We get some of it now, of course. With a lot of effort it brought us to this point now where we’re doing better. We’re not really there yet, so I don’t want anybody to think that we think we have arrived when it comes to maximum inclusion. You certainly knew at that time that women had a role to play, and it was the distant background role, but everybody was doing it.”

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then.”

Civil rights leader Xernona Clayton in Atlanta, June 12, 2017.

Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for Hyatt

If Change was a recognition of struggle, the evening ended in full-on celebration with a performance of choreographer Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, recreated under the supervision of Leo Holder, the son of Geoffrey and de Lavallade.

Judith Jamison, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and a mentee of de Lavallade’s, introduced the performance. “It’s a work that proves that being a black ballet dancer does not mean leaving your culture behind,” she said.

Dougla is also a reminder that there is more to blackness than pain, grief and triumph over trauma. It’s a dance that tells the story of a wedding ceremony between African and Hindu. De Lavallade beamed as she watched from the audience, clapping her hands, which were encased in gloves covered in silver sequins.

“For me, this means don’t stop,” de Lavallade said after the performance. “Just keep going. You can contemplate, but you have to move forward in contemplation. There’s so much going on. You can’t let outside influences get to you, and that’s what’s happened. You can’t do that. You have to keep your eye on the prize — isn’t that what [King] said?”

South African choreographer reinterprets ‘Giselle’ as a vehicle for female rage Dada Masilo’s ballet recalls Angela Bassett’s famous torching-the-Beemer scene in ‘Waiting to Exhale’

It’s the most recognizable scene from Waiting to Exhale: Angela Bassett, playing the wronged first wife Bernadine, decides to get herself some good old-fashioned revenge.

Upon learning that her husband is leaving her for his white assistant, Bernadine, clad in a white dressing gown and black negligee, gathers her husband’s collection of expensive executive wear and stuffs it through the doors, windows and sunroof of his BMW. Once the walk-in closet is bare, Bernadine douses the Beemer with lighter fluid. She sets fire to the car and watches the flames for a beat before lighting a cigarette.

Bernadine turns to walk back into her house and casually tosses the cigarette over her shoulder into the burning car without looking back. The entire emotional thrill ride is distilled into the flick of one cigarette: He had it coming. Which is why, more than 20 years after the movie was released, the scene lives on as internet shorthand for scorched-earth female rage.

South African dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo, 33, has brought the spirit of Bernadine to the ballet, and, boy, is she cold-blooded.

On Tuesday night, Masilo’s company, the Dance Factory, opened her reimagining of the classic romance Giselle at The Joyce Theater in New York. The show runs through April 8 before continuing at the Wallis Annenberg Center in Los Angeles (April 12-14) and the Quick Center in Fairfield, Connecticut (April 18). All of the dancers are black, and Masilo has choreographed a Giselle that’s a mix of ballet, modern dance and traditional South African dance.

He had it coming.

Albrecht is assaulted by the Wilis in an earlier production of “Giselle” staged in Johannesburg.

John Hogg

For this whole Giselle-inhabits-the-spirit-of-Bernadine metaphor to make sense, you should know something about this ballet. A two-act French ballet from 1841, the work takes its name from its tragic title character. Giselle (danced by Masilo) is a peasant girl who catches the eye of a nobleman named Albrecht. Albrecht is already engaged to a noblewoman named Bathilde, but he can’t help himself. He wants Giselle, and he poses as a peasant to woo her. She falls madly in love with him. Another peasant, Hilarion, who’s also in love with Giselle, recognizes Albrecht’s deception. But she only has eyes for Albrecht.

Soon enough, Albrecht’s true identity is revealed and he runs back to his noblewoman. Giselle dies of a broken heart.

In Act 2, both Hilarion and Albrecht visit Giselle’s grave. This is a terrible idea, thanks to a group of angry undead spirit ladies, called the Wilis, all of whom have been betrayed in some way by their lovers. They’re sort of like graveyard Sirens: If you’re a man, you don’t really want to cross them, and if you do, they’ll force you to dance until you die.

Hilarion is forced to dance to death. But Albrecht enjoys a different fate. The Wilis want Albrecht too, but thanks to the grace, love and forgiveness of Giselle, he is spared. The Wilis force Albrecht to dance until sunrise, but he lives. Albrecht gets to run back to his fiancée and remain rich. Giselle’s spirit gets to rest.

*Cue record scratch*

Masilo has remixed the second act of Giselle to allow her title character to tap her inner Bernadine. This is Masilo’s thing. Before Giselle, she was famous for deconstructing another classical ballet. In her version of Swan Lake, not only are the dancers black, but she makes the prince gay and everyone wears tutus, including the male characters.

Masilo makes radical changes, yes, but she’s not an agent of cheap provocation. She reconstructs the classics and infuses them with modern bodies and modern politics. Her Giselle is set in a South African village, and she sets it off with nods to South African culture. South African composer Philip Miller adds African rhythms and sounds to Adolphe Adam’s original score. Myrtha, queen of the Wilis (Llewellyn Mnguni), wields a traditional grass broom that resembles a cat-o’-nine-tails. When Bathilde (Liyabuya Gongo) leaves her high heels behind after a harvest party, Giselle’s mother (Khaya Ndlovu), who’s a drunk, decides to take them. She can’t fit in them but figures she can sell them and get some cash to get “lit.”

Masilo imagined the Wilis as a coven of wronged individuals led by the sadistic Myrtha. And just like she did with her gender-bent Swan Lake, Masilo complicates things further with the addition of two male Wilis. The inclusion of male Wilis prompts questions: Are they men who have come to see things the way the women do? Are they nonbinary? Have they experienced similar romantic betrayal? Regardless, they are just as enthusiastic about forcing Hilarion (Tshepo Zasekhaya) and Albrecht (Xola Willie) to dance to their deaths.

Myrtha persuades the heartbroken Giselle to see things her way, like a dungeon mistress tutoring a newly converted follower. And when Giselle allows herself to be angry with Albrecht, Myrtha gives her a whip to exact her revenge.

In an earlier production in Johannesburg, Albrecht is the sole character played by a white dancer, which adds another layer of revelation. I wish they’d kept Albrecht white for the current production, but Masilo’s Giselle works perfectly well focusing on gender politics and the power of untapped feminine rage. There are plenty of dastardly men of all races.

Masilo waits until the very end before she rewards us with her Bernadine moment. The Wilis exit one by one, walking into the heavenly light that beckons from stage right, until only Giselle is left with the crumpled, lifeless Albrecht. She walks across the stage to him and steps, rather unceremoniously, over Albrecht’s corpse and into the fading light.

He had it coming.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness. But Masilo’s Giselle doesn’t need her love for Albrecht to serve as her guiding light. Choosing herself will suffice.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown is free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country Her new work ‘ink’ explores the grace and democracy of African-American social dance

Alvin Ailey used to say that “dance is for everybody.”

Camille A. Brown, the tiny choreographer with big ideas, may be the living embodiment of that legacy. She’s the latest choreographer to marry social dance with concert dance, creating something that’s both sophisticated and familiar, evocative and unmistakably black.

You may know Brown’s work from a video that went viral and was turned into a TED explainer:

She’s an accomplished storyteller who began her career with Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE company and danced for two years with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She did the choreography for the Broadway revival of Once on the Island. And she’s something of a dance evangelist, not just choreographing and performing but often staying for audience Q&A’s postperformance. She wants to make dance accessible.

Brown is now touring her newest work, ink, which she debuted in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It’s the final chapter of a trilogy that began with Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012), followed by Black Girl: Linguistic Play (2015). All three examine black identity, stereotypes and authenticity. Her company performed ink at the University of Iowa last week, moved to Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, this weekend and will take the work to St. Paul, Minnesota, in late March.


Brown, 38, grew up dancing in Queens, New York. From the time she was 3, she’d watch Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos. Her mother noticed that she was preternaturally good at recreating the Jacksons’ complex choreography and enrolled her in dance classes. Brown loved it. She had a knack for learning dances quickly under Carolyn DeVore. And then puberty — or, rather, the way the adults around her reacted to the changes in her body — momentarily wrecked everything.

“When I got to high school and college, all of the sudden I became aware of what the ideal body was, and I quickly learned that I was not the ideal person,” Brown said during an interview in Washington. “I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that … so people would say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to fit the costume. Oh, you need to lose weight.’ ”

Brown began dieting when she was 16, and by the time she started studying dance in college at North Carolina School for the Arts, she’d become accustomed to getting sent to the school nutritionist. It was like being called to the principal’s office, but for food. She’s since shed 15-20 pounds, but that time and the way she felt about her body had a lasting impact.

“I had teachers that really saw my ability and really helped nurture that, and then I had teachers that just didn’t look at me, or just was like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to be a dancer.’ I just really had a struggle with that,” Brown said. “Me being a dancer, it was something that I wanted to achieve, but I didn’t necessarily think that I would be able to achieve it based on the things that I had been hearing about who I was.”

“I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that.”

So after receiving her bachelor of fine arts degree from NCSA, Brown joined a dance company where it didn’t matter that she had a butt, or a chest size larger than an A cup: Ronald K. Brown’s Brooklyn-based EVIDENCE.

“Body image was one of the reasons why I got into choreography, because I don’t know if I was always considered the best or had the perfect body image,” Brown said. “Would I be a choreographer now? I don’t know. I just know how I got here.”

Ink incorporates dancers of various shapes and sizes, using African, modern, hip-hop and social dance to explore black identity and day-to-day life. Brown’s movements explode from her petite, muscled frame (she’s maybe 5 feet tall) to fill the stage. Another dancer in the company, Kendra Dennard, holds your attention as a long, lithe, seductive flirt. There are bald heads and locs, juicy booties and small ones. Brown’s dancers run the gamut.

Brown takes movements that are familiar — the way a black woman might pat her hair as if to say, “I’m feeling myself,” or the act of scrubbing a floor — and folds them into stories about romance and friendship. In ink, Brown is a consummate observer of male body language. Her dancers capture the hesitation that comes with meeting someone for the first time, the way men can outwardly show off and exaggerate themselves while concealing vulnerability and sensitivity. And Brown reveals what it’s like in the intimate, comfortable moments when that mask is dropped.

In a section of the performance called Balance, about the courtship between a man and a woman, Brown said she wanted to use the scene to “debunk patriarchy.” And so the audience sees the male partner following a woman’s lead. The relationship moves at her speed, not his.

“It’s not the romance that we might see in the movies, but it’s romance in the sense that I know what romance is,” Brown said. “I mean, it’s coming from what I see or what I’ve experienced, so in that way it’s what I know love to be.”

What comes through in Brown’s work is a philosophy that social dance is just as significant as its classical cousin, ballet, and that incorporating it on stages like those of the Kennedy Center doesn’t cheapen the work of George Balanchine, whose outsize influence on what’s considered the “ideal” dancer body type continues to loom large. It’s simply a different form of communicating, drawing on another set of traditions and skills, the same way choreographers like Ailey or Twyla Tharp or Katherine Dunham created their own styles too. What’s more, using a variety of bodies to communicate those traditions doesn’t cheapen anything either.

“If you go all the way back to when I was a kid, I’m [told], ‘You’re not the ideal dancer.’ To go from that to actually being at the Kennedy Center under my own name? It’s something that I would have never dreamed of, ever,” Brown said. “It’s really a powerful time, and especially because we’re doing work that is not, by some people, seen as valuable. We live in a very Eurocentric dance world, where ballet or contemporary is seen as the elite movement, and so I’m not doing that. I’m doing modern, and hip-hop, and tap, and African, and social dance. To have this kind of platform, knowing that other people, whoever those other people are, don’t view this as real dance, is tremendous.”

For Brown, a Kennedy Center debut wasn’t just a platform; it was a springboard. She is now free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country, and even the globe.

Figure Skating in Detroit is aiming to change the color of the sport This girls-only program uses figure skating to build self-esteem and academic achievement

Asked recently which event she was more excited about — the 2018 Winter Olympics or the recently released Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya — 13-year-old figure skater Kendyll Martin quickly said the Olympics. After all, she hadn’t even been born when Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted at Cobo Arena and wasn’t familiar with arguably the most dramatic moment in figure skating history.

Her dad, Carl Martin, chuckled. He remembered it, but he and his family are focused on how figure skating can be more widely available in communities of color.

Kendyll was introduced to the sport in kindergarten through a program at her private school. But she is more the exception than the rule. Many black girls, in Detroit and elsewhere, have not been exposed to the sport or its benefits.

Figure Skating in Detroit (FSD) is aiming to change this. The girls-only program is an offshoot of New York’s Figure Skating in Harlem, which uses figure skating to develop leadership skills, self-esteem and academic achievement.

Kendyll’s mother, Robin Martin, learned of FSD on the news and took Kendyll to a free workshop. Kendyll, who had stopped skating because her school’s program had been dismantled, was excited to have an opportunity to get back on the ice. Her parents were pleased with the program’s focus on skating, education and leadership.

Applicants are required to be Detroit residents and undergo an interview. Geneva Williams, director of Figure Skating in Detroit, uses the interview to determine the quality most important to her and the program: commitment.

In exchange for the time commitment — roughly two hours per day, four days a week — and maintaining at least a B average in school, the girls receive ice skates, uniforms, mentoring and on-ice instruction. Parents are asked to participate as well. Williams doesn’t just want them to provide transportation and fees, she wants them to attend some of the workshops.

The cost to the family is about $250, which covers instructor’s fees, costumes and equipment, and skates. Anyone who can’t swing that amount is asked to pay what they can. The Michigan Women’s Foundation, individual donors and other local foundations subsidize most of the program’s expenses. Williams’ goal is to get 300 girls to join by the end of 2018.

“I was impressed and excited that they offered skates,” said Robin Martin, although Kendyll hasn’t taken advantage of this yet. She still uses skates that were purchased before she joined FSD. Robin added that the cost to join the yearlong program is equivalent to what she would have paid for one or two private lessons.

She’s right. The cost of figure skating can be can be stifling, and it is likely part of the reason there aren’t more black figure skaters. A new pair of figure skates can start at $500. Add coaching costs, ice time and outfits and the tab can jump to $10,000 just for a low-level skater. This is steep for most families, let alone those living in Detroit, where the median household income is just above $26,000.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, 52 girls travel to Jack Adams Arena in northwest Detroit to skate. They range in age from 6 to 15, and Williams suspects most have never practiced the sport before.

“They are learning wiggles and basic skills,” reported Kendyll. More advanced skaters, like herself, work on spins and jumps. Her favorite is the loop jump and the scratch spin.

The girls are divided into four groups based on skill level. Besides on-ice instruction, they receive off-ice training in ballet, jazz, choreography and expression.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, the girls are separated by age and participate in a program called I Can Excel (ICE).

“I take classes like financial literacy, life skills, STEM and dance,” said Kendyll. Nutrition and tutoring are also offered on these days.

Barb Reichert, spokeswoman for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, likes all of it. “I admire how Figure Skating in Detroit puts a laser focus on education and then provides the support to be successful in the classroom and beyond,” she said by email.

Gary Miron, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Western Michigan University, is also excited about the program.

“Kids engaged in extracurricular activities tend to perform better than kids who don’t,” he said. Students who compete in gymnastics, cross-country and track tend to have high GPAs, he said, and figure skating would probably fit into this group of sports tied to high academic performance.

Williams added that understanding the physics of figure skating can help girls understand physics generally. It is these connections between sports and science that fortify her belief in the program.

Another benefit for the participants is the backing of Olympian Meryl Davis. The 2014 ice dancing Olympic champion is not competing in Pyeongchang, but she has been promoting both programs in Harlem and Detroit. She visits and gives skating tips to the girls from time to time.

Kendyll has met Davis a few times, and the encounters leave her somewhere between dazzled and intrigued. Still, she’s not interested in pursuing ice dance. Instead, Kendyll hopes to learn more complex jumps and spins so she can compete. FSD does not train girls for competition, so she’d have to join or partner with a figure skating club to do so.

Williams is not opposed to helping the girls compete, but right now she’s trying to secure funding and participants to ensure the longevity of the program. And Figure Skating in Detroit may be just as helpful to its lead organizer as it is to the girls who enroll. Williams was caring for her sick husband when she first heard about the program. When he died, Williams needed to grieve and find something she was passionate about professionally and emotionally. Though she is not a figure skater, FSD has helped spark the next iteration of her career.

The Detroit area attracts some of the most elite skaters and coaches in the world. This has been true since the 1960s, a long time before Little Caesars Arena was scheduled to host the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships in 2019.

But while black folks make up most of the Motor City’s population, only a small fraction appear to be members of the figure skating clubs around the region. The United States Figure Skating Association, the national governing body for the sport, does not track the race of competitors. Pictures from ice shows and competitions are the best evidence that black skaters exist.

All of this — the population, the number of skating rinks in the city, the figure skating talent, the need — is why Figure Skating in Harlem chose Detroit as an expansion city for the program last November.

Halftime is game time: An oral history of ‘Drumline’ Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Dallas Austin and more on the film’s legacy and its fictional — but real — HBCU marching band



Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Drumline is inspired by the life of Grammy-winning super-producer Dallas Austin, who created massive hits with Boyz II Men, TLC, Madonna and more. Austin’s life in music began during his days on his high school band’s drumline, and the 2002 film is the coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old hotshot New York drummer who’s recruited to join the marching band of the fictional historically black Atlanta A&T University.

Nick Cannon stars as Devon Miles, who arrives on campus and quickly outshines senior drum section leader Sean Taylor (Leonard Roberts) and forces band director Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones) to reconsider his approach to musicianship. In the process, Devon wins the heart of upperclassman dancer Laila, portrayed by then up-and-comer Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy). But when Devon’s ego gets the better of him, he’s kicked out of the band and forced to fight his way back onto the drumline, while learning the value of teamwork.

The film was the sophomore effort of Charles Stone III’s film career. He made a name for himself with the iconic (and CLIO Hall of Fame) “Whassup” Budweiser ad campaign, and his directorial debut was 2002’s dark and authoritative ’hood saga Paid In Full. Drumline, which was shot mainly at Clark Atlanta University, raked in a total of $57 million at the box office.

The idea of marching bands consisting of “uncool” kids was laid to rest with the premiere of Fox 2000’s Drumline. The beloved film successfully makes the case that marching bands, especially those found at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the South, are melting pots of artistic athleticism. Drumline showed the world that band members not only train like the pros but also compete like champions.

Everyone quoted is identified by the titles they held during the Drumline era.

First Quarter: Drummer Boys

Before he produced Boyz II Men’s nine-times platinum 1991 Cooleyhighharmony at the age of 19, or won his first Grammy for producing TLC’s then futuristic 1999 FanMail, or worked with Madonna, The Brand New Heavies, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Fishbone, Monica, Michael Jackson and even Deion Sanders, Dallas Austin played snare drum in his high school marching band. The Atlanta (by way of Columbus, Georgia) producer joined the drumline at Columbus High School when his older brother, Claude, a section leader, graduated. With talent far beyond his freshman classification, Austin experienced pushback from the new section leader, who attempted to haze him and expose him to the band director for not being able to read music. Austin’s high school experience is the story of Drumline, a film he pitched at 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s. “Fox said, ‘What’s so interesting about marching bands?’” recalled Austin, who gave studio executives a peek at footage from a high school battle of the bands at the Georgia Dome. His project was greenlit, and a script, by Shawn Schepps, was drafted.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie went into turnaround hell for eight to 10 years.

Jody GersonProducer

One day, Dallas and I are having a conversation. I asked, ‘What happened with Drumline?’ He said, ‘It just didn’t go anywhere. … I haven’t heard anything.’

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie was just sitting … but I felt like the story needed to be told. … I called Quincy Jones one day, and I was like, ‘Man, what do I do?’ He wasn’t trying to be funny or nothing, but he said, ‘You ain’t gonna make it in that industry unless you got somebody who’s Jewish on your side.’

Jody GersonProducer

I said, ‘What if I brought it to my friend Wendy Finerman [Forrest Gump, I Like It Like That, The Devil Wears Prada], who has a deal at Fox, and we produce it together?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

They came to me and said, ‘What do we do?’

Jody GersonProducer

Wendy, Dallas and I went to Elizabeth Gabler, who was the head of Fox 2000. Dallas pitched her.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I actually wanted to talk Fox out of the movie — I wanted to get it back.

Jody GersonProducer

He told us these stories about how ‘halftime was game time’ in the South, and it was not about the football game as much as it was about the marching band. And about how many of his peers in the music business started their careers on drumlines.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

She goes, ‘Well, damn, we’ve got to make this movie.’

Jody GersonProducer

Elizabeth only wanted to add one thing: ‘Can we make it in college as opposed to high school?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

So we basically started from scratch.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I still have not read the first draft of Drumline … but what was originally pitched felt like a suburban band movie, where a black kid comes to a white, uptight school and brings the funk to the school. … The only thing I knew was that the main character couldn’t read. He was illiterate. I thought, ‘No way could I rewrite this.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t like the racial implications, or what I perceived to be the potential racial implications, of doing that kind of story.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The first script was too comedic.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I spoke with the band director at Florida A&M [Dr. Julian E. White]. He started mentioning so much about the practices and the culture and just the fabric of what it means to become a band member at an HBCU. He kept saying, ‘You have to see it.’ I went to … hot, muggy Southern Florida. The whole town was just vibrating from the football field at night. They’d practice late nights when the sun went down, and early mornings, because of the heat. And there were always alumni around the field … and they’ve got snakes around their neck; their school mascot is a rattlesnake. I underestimated the richness of the world inside of the band. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be something … ’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I’d passed on the first script, and then six months later or so, it came back with a historically black college, and that was more interesting. The new script allowed me the opportunity to explore percussion … and a style of marching band — the show style — that was much more alluring, more magnetic. Then, learning more about what these kids go through, it was just like a sport, you know? I went to one of the summer training camps, and it’s the exact same thing — a real grind. That’s what inspired me to do it as a full-blown, big sports movie.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

From the first conversation I had with Charles, he’s like, ‘These are musicians, but this is a sports movie.’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I got a call from Donna Isaacson, who was head of casting for 20th Century Fox. Then Charles and I had lunch at the Beverly Wilshire and talked about the character of Dr. Lee, and the scope, and how he was looking to shoot it. He talked about how he’d dramatize the element of halftime at historically black colleges.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I was excited about the fact that Hollywood was actually telling the story of a part of the experience of attending a historically black college.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It felt like such a young, hip and super unique college story about young people trying to make a name for themselves. … I just felt happy and grateful to be doing a film about a piece of American culture … and a side of American college life that hasn’t really been tapped on enough.

Jody GersonProducer

But the studio kept focusing on a white character. That we had to have a white character to market the movie.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I got a call from Fox. They said, ‘Dallas, we don’t know how to say this, but put white people in the movie.’ I said, ‘OK, how many white people do you want?’ They said, ‘We want somebody in the band. … We have to have a character, because now it’s turning into a black movie.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The studio wanted a white character in the midst of this ensemble of color in order to support or give us the amount of money we wanted. We needed $20 million to make it. They were offering us $15 million.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

First, it was a $13 million movie, which is a lot for an urban film, so to speak, at that time. I was trying to tell them, it’s not an urban film, it’s a story … it’s a team story. We started going over $13 million, because nobody knew what it was like to film 300-piece marching bands.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I said, ‘Let me see how a white kid’s story would be inside of a black marching band without making it ridiculous.’ I go to Morris Brown College one day, and I see this kid. He’s one of the cymbal players, a white kid with red hair. I said, ‘Where’d you come from?’ He said, ‘In Atlanta, down the street. I’ve always wanted to be in the band because I grew up in the neighborhood.’ We followed that story into GQ’s character.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

I got this appointment for Drumline … and Charles was like, ‘Hey, can you play the drum?’ … I wasn’t trained growing up, playing the drums, but I’m a musician. So I saw the question as, ‘Do you have rhythm?’ I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, I got rhythm.’ It’s funny that I ended up getting the role where the guy has rhythm issues.

“In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.”Charles Stone III

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I got a hold of the script and really dug the idea. Then, I met with Charles …

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Leonard wasn’t my first pick for Sean. The studio wanted Leonard because he has this beautiful, booming voice, and he’s really good-looking. I thought he was fine in his audition, but I liked Khalil Kain [Juice, Girlfriends, Love Jones] who was good. He was a real antagonist, which is what I liked. … I had to fight the head of Fox 2000. I finally gave up.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I met with Charles over at Fox. … I got there early and was hanging out. At the time, I’d just done He Got Game with Spike Lee, and I drove a Range Rover in the movie. At that time, it was the nicest car I’d ever driven. I was like, Man, when I get my money, I’d love to have one of these. So I’m sitting at Fox, looking out the window. I see this Range pull up. The window comes down, and it’s Nick Cannon.

Second Quarter: Funky Drummers

The late 1990s and early 2000s? This was before Nick Cannon was really Nick Cannon, although flashes of stardom were apparent. A stand-up comedian from San Diego, he burst onto the Hollywood scene on Nickelodeon’s youth sketch comedy series All That and teen sitcom Kenan & Kel. At age 17, through his work on All That, Cannon became the youngest writer in television history. That talent and charisma led Nickelodeon to give him his own spinoff, The Nick Cannon Show, which launched in 2002 with Cannon starring, producing and directing. While casting for Drumline’s lead role of Devon Miles, a me-against-the-world snare drummer from Harlem who secretly couldn’t read music, screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism remembers sitting in producer Wendy Finerman’s office going through audition tapes. One especially stood out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I started to hear about all of the different people who were auditioning. I really thought, I don’t know if I’m going to get it.

Jody GersonProducer

I remember a really young Lil Wayne coming in for an audition.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

T.I. auditioned, too. He represented another part of my character, in a different way. But I felt like Nick, at the time, was closer to ‘me’ because I wasn’t overly cocky. I just knew what I was doing.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I definitely saw something in Devon. It was me … I was probably the same knucklehead who thought he knew it all. That’s … why I embodied the character so well.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Nick … had something that made me vote for him. He was cute, and he was a very talented, strong actor. He was able to show the bad boy but add a vulnerability to it that made it charming. None of the other actors even hinted at vulnerability.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to Nick and Lee Thompson Young [The Famous Jett Jackson, Rizzoli & Isles].

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They auditioned me like three or four times. In the screen test, they team you up with different people. They teamed me with Zoe Saldana. I didn’t know who she was, but there was something there.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I didn’t know that much about him … but everybody said great things about him. Once I met him, he certainly did not disappoint me.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

A friend of mine, Kim Porter, I’ve been knowing her since kindergarten. By the time we got to high school … we were kind of flirty and datey. We were in band together — she played bells. … Zoe’s character, Laila, was kind of written after Kim. … I was kind of looking for a girl who reminded me of Kim and was close to what she looked like.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Laila … I felt like she was a relatable character. … I really liked how they’d written her to be — genuinely, like, a nice person.

Wendy FinermanProducer

Zoe … you could imagine somebody falling in love with her at first sight. She had a smartness to her that was really important for her character. She carried herself like a Spelman girl.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I remember me even having a crush on Zoe. … I think she had a boyfriend at the time, though …

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

He was really funny. There was a serenity to Nick’s demeanor that was very pleasant.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to between Zoe Saldana and Kerry Washington. Zoe had a realism to her. I mean, she’s fine as all hell, both her and Kerry. But Kerry had a refined technique that … for me, at the time, was a little too refined.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

That screen test, it just felt right. I had actually had a conversation with Charles the night before. I had been doing Nickelodeon work, and he was like, ‘I want you to be you. I don’t want you to bring in any of the TV persona.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Nick had raw talent … a boyishness that didn’t feel manufactured, or like he was performing. He was also so passionate to get the job.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I got the call and … I’m gonna be honest, I was just happy to have booked a job. I didn’t know how big, culturally, it was going to be.

Third Quarter: Give the drummer some

Drumline’s fictional Atlanta A&T needed a legit HBCU marching band, and Dallas Austin trusted only one person to deliver. Don Roberts, then band director at Atlanta’s Southwest DeKalb High School, received a phone call from Austin, who asked to attend one of his band’s rehearsals. Under Roberts’ tutelage, the Marching Panthers, through performances at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Bowl, had become one of the most recognizable bands in Atlanta and the entire nation. Austin was a huge fan. “He came to band rehearsal with his entourage,” said Roberts, a former Florida A&M drum major and the executive consultant on the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings. “They watched for a little while, and then he said, ‘I wanna talk to you about this project … this movie that’s gonna be coming out two years from now.’” A year later, Roberts got a call from Drumline line producer Timothy Bourne and was brought on as the film’s executive band consultant, tasked with building Atlanta A&T’s band from the ground up. He formed a small team that included two percussion instructors, Keith Sailor and Demetrius Hubert, bass drum coach Corey Lowe and dance coach Glenda Morton. Most of the Atlanta A&T band you see in Drumline is made up of high school students from Southwest DeKalb. As for the drumline? A mix of real HBCU drummers and actors put through training hell.

Wendy FinermanProducer

We assembled the drumline long before we started shooting, because we wanted to make it as authentic as possible.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I knew the work Don was doing. If he could do it with kids, then of course he could put a fictional band together that would be just as good.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

I feel like I owe them all apologies. I didn’t know actors were supposed to be pampered. I don’t want to use the word ‘hazing,’ but, man, they went through it. We treated them as we would first-year band members.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I played in my eighth-grade band. It was a little marching band. The stuff that we were doing in comparison to what we were doing in Drumline? Man, it was small potatoes. Was I prepared? Hell no.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I come from New York, and my sister stepped in high school as a cheerleader, but I didn’t really know that much about the whole Southern HBCU band and dance culture. I was in for a ride.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

We got to Atlanta in late winter of 2001, and we were in music class at Southwest DeKalb High School. Immersing ourselves in it became an all-consuming thing.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Imagine Nick Cannon in a high school band, [next to] my drum players holding the sticks. We did that.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Nick and myself arrived two weeks prior to everyone else’s first day. We were each assigned a drum coach. I had my homie Corey Lowe on the big bass drum teaching me. Nick had this dude named Snoop, who was teaching him the snare.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

The actors get there, and we see they don’t know about drumming at all. So the real drummers, we’re laughing and making jokes, but at the same time we feel some type of way. We’re like, Oh, OK. Hollywood wants to make a movie about drumlines and HBCU culture in the South, but you have actors supposed to be doing this drumming? Like, who is Nick Cannon?

“I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.”Zoe Saldana

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I didn’t want a drum double. I remember telling Charles, ‘I want to figure out how to do it myself.’ But some of the stuff was so intricate … if I had to have a double, I wanted the best. Snoop was the best.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

All Nick carried around with him throughout that time were drumsticks. It was like, ‘Damn, this dude is really in this.’ He’s beating on tables with drumsticks … he’s flipping the sticks in the air. He’s in his trailer working one of the pads, getting the sticking down.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

In the beginning he would drop them everywhere, and by the time we started shooting he knew how to move these drumsticks so swiftly through his fingers. It was great to see how committed he was to this part.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

Nick was dedicated to getting better. One time he got frustrated … and kind of threw the sticks down. I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to play anymore?’ He said, ‘Man, I’m not going to need this after this movie anyway.’ I told him, ‘Yeah, but right now you need this, so you might as well pick up the sticks, because this is your job right now.’

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

At one point … my hand had ripped open. My drum was covered in blood. I had a big gouge taken out of my finger from the repetition of using this mallet … I played through that shit.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It was literally like boot camp. We’d show up to set, eyes red. Some people would get sick … we were doing B-12 shots. I developed hard scars on the side of my abdomen — it was scar tissue from the weight and pressure of the drum.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Everybody worked really, really hard on their characters. It wasn’t like our characters had easy things to do. They were musicians, we were dancers, and we had to practice. There were a lot of rehearsals, a lot of choreography, and a lot of routines and instruments to learn to sort of maneuver.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

… I’m over here struggling with this tuba, trying to hold it and at least pretend like I know what I’m doing.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

You couldn’t be pretending to do any of this.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I was drumming, as well. … For me, it was wanting to understand exactly what the drumlines were going through and wanting to understand what my role as leader of that band was. That was taught to me by Don Roberts.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We put the baton in his hand and had to show him how to conduct. You want to look like a real band director or people were going to chew you up. … The choreographer with the dancers, Glenda Morton, she did the same thing with Zoe. She drilled her.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

Zoe worked super hard learning all the dances. She never let up.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I thought it was a little odd for her at first because there’s such a sassy, black Southern girl thing that goes along with it. But once she settled into her character, it became second nature. Anything is awkward like that at first … shaking your hips like that.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Here I am with a classical ballet background, and I just had no mobility in my hips. … I definitely trained a lot … by the end, I felt like I could drop it like it’s hot.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We worked the crap out of those guys and they took it. They were not Hollywood. They were not too big for this. They came in and they sweated. … I remember [assistant percussion director] Keith Sailor, he started calling the guys ‘The Senate.’ … We brought it back to Charles … and the next thing I knew, it was in the script.

Fourth Quarter: Different Drummers

The first time the Atlanta A&T marching band took the field on camera was week two of shooting, for “The Halftime Show.” Freshman phenom Devon Miles was named a P-1 snare on A&T’s drumline, and in the tunnel of the football stadium, he anxiously awaited his debut performance. Cinematographer Hurlbut envisioned the scene taking shape in a huge tunnel, like the one the USC football team emerges from at the 93,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. What he had to work with was the tiny tunnel of Clark Atlanta’s Panther Stadium. Capacity: 5,000 seats.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

I was like, ‘All right. So how can we make this work? … What if we just pile the whole band in that tunnel? Not just the drumline, but everyone.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

They’re in this tunnel and you can hear the thumping and the noise outside, the cheering and stuff, but it’s muffled. Then Sean and Devon have an argument, then … the football team comes pouring in, and that adds another sonic layer of commotion.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

I had the tagline of the movie during that scene … ‘Down here, it’s about the marching bands … Halftime is game time.’ It really is that serious … it’s life.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

You see Dr. Lee come in, and he goes, ‘One band, one sound!’ … You see that long tunnel of fluorescent lights … all of a sudden, this stick comes up in the frame and goes completely parallel across the image. Then, it just goes tap, tap, tap, tap. Then, it’s like, BOOM, they explode.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

Coming out of the tunnel all hype, it was cold, we were yelling, there were so many people out there. It was late at night. We were like, Let’s get it.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.

Wendy FinermanProducer

The first moment the band was together, you kind of go, ‘Oh, my God, I get this.’ The sound. Your body. Your heart. Everything is pounding internally. … It’s really a physical experience.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I had no idea how stylized this movie was going to be. … Charles and Shane did a great job.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Everything about it felt like I was in a dream, but it felt like I had walked this dream before in real life.

“When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.”Leonard Roberts

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The sound hits you like a wave. I’ll never forget that feeling. I was like, God damn, this is so inspiring. This is unbelievable. Halftime is game time. I tried to make it as big and grand as possible. This was Devon’s first game. He gets out there, he sees the crowd, he kind of starts to freak out, he fails.

In this moment, A&T’s senior drum section leader Sean Taylor, played by Leonard Roberts, steps up for a solo. After overcoming his nerves, Devon Miles, played by Nick Cannon, follows suit, stealing the spotlight from Sean. Most of Cannon’s drumming in this scene is done by Jason “Snoop” Price.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

It was stick-around-the-head, stick-around-the-head.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

You see the stuff that’s me. And those super close shots usually are Snoop.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We filmed that part a couple of times because I couldn’t feel my frickin’ fingers … my fingers were frozen. It was so cold in Atlanta. … I made the solo up and everything, but I had to go up into the studio and do it again so it could come out really crisp and clean.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

We had to make sure everything was crisp — whatever it took to make it real.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They were able to mix all the drumming in afterwards in the edit, so they didn’t miss a beat. Every time that stick hit the snare, it popped. It sang. They made me seem like I was crazy with it. As the filming went on, you saw a bunch of wide shots. If you watch the last drum battle, it’s nothing but wide shots. By that time … I’d picked up all of the cadences.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

By the time we got to the final scene? No doubles.

Fifth Quarter: Drum Machine

Drumline’s halftime scene was beautiful, but the entire film relied upon the cast and crew nailing the fictional BET Big Southern Classic. For this battle of the bands, Drumline received the keys to the Georgia Dome. Within a tight, two-day window, everybody and their mama showed up: ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott called the event from the booth. Blu Cantrell sang the national anthem. 106 & Park hosts A.J. and Free MC’d the spectacle. And rapper Petey Pablo, who drove a Bentley onto the field, performed with Morris Brown’s actual band. It seemed all of Atlanta came out to watch real-life marching bands, which also included Bethune-Cookman, Clark Atlanta and Grambling State, square off against the Hollywood-crafted Atlanta A&T. Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Southern’s Human Jukebox, however, were noticeably absent. “Both of them gave the same answers,” Don Roberts remembers, and paraphrases: Thank you for the invitation to participate; however, we don’t lose. Not in real life and not in fiction.

As the story goes, the competition ended in a tie between Morris Brown and Atlanta A&T, whose Jackson 5-inspired, old school-meets-new-school routine was nothing short of amazing. To decide which band would emerge as victor, each team’s drumlines went toe-to-toe. But as the film’s crew prepared for the final scene, which screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism modeled after the drumline battles that often unfolded near team buses after games, Stone and Hurlbut faced a problem.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The producers came to me: ‘We can’t afford to fill the Georgia Dome for more than two days … We can’t use CGI, we can’t do tiling, we can’t do any of this stuff.’ I remember going home and waking up in the middle of the night. … I go, ‘What if we turn the lights off?

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Shane came up with a great idea of shooting it like it’s a boxing match. … All the lights would drop out except for the overheads on the field.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Nick was hell-bent … ‘I’m doing all my scenes. I’m not going to have a stand-in, no double, nothing.’ The same thing with Leonard. Nick stayed up pretty much all night long in the hotel, working.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We really did stay up all night, just drilling, drilling, drilling. We kept going over the cadences. You drop the sticks? OK, pick them up again. I told Nick, ‘If you want this to just be you in the end scene, we’re going to have to grind it out.’ And he was a champ — he grinded it out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted it to be real. You see all these movies where they cut to the double. If I’m supposed to be the best, I wanted to do everything I could do to be the best.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Sometimes scenes in movies are shot out of sequence … but this purposefully and necessarily was shot at the very end of shooting because they needed us, the five actors in the drumline, to be as on-point as humanly possible, so that we actually did beat Morris Brown’s drumline.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were so immersed in our characters, and the Atlanta A&T band, that in our minds, when we did that scene, we really believed we were better than Morris Brown.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

You could feel the tension. Everyone on the crew was like, ‘Holy shit. Our boys are going to war right now, and we’re getting to watch it.’ There was this feeling in the air of do-or-die time.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

The real-life drummers … they didn’t feel that great about actors portraying drummers on a drumline that they’d sacrificed and worked very hard to get on [in real life]. They weren’t that impressed. So it was like boxers before a fight, all that trash-talking.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I was kind of stoking that fire a little bit, supporting both sides to bring it, you know? I actually wore a T-shirt I had made … a Morris Brown T-shirt and an Atlanta A&T T-shirt, cut in half and then sewed together. It was an ugly-ass looking shirt … but I wore it in solidarity or just support for both teams.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

One of the best parts of being in the marching band was when … the drumlines would go on afterwards. … Those battles were very intense.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

To this day, one of my favorite shots I’ve ever done is that fucking one that lays on the 50-yard line, and it’s a sea of black, but the 50-yard line is lit, and those two bands come in from the side and just line up right next to each other.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was like a Rocky moment.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

But I’ll tell you straightforward, the first time we did the scene, Morris Brown kicked Atlanta A&T’s ass.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

Morris Brown fired up a drum cadence that was so sexy … it was like, If you guys win in this movie, it’s gonna be because of some Hollywood shit.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

They were a seasoned drumline that had been playing for years. We were a drumline that was built in a couple of weeks. If you look at it, we made this movie at the end of the marching season. They’d already been playing these cadences the whole season. They were so tight that it was like, what can we do to top this? We had actors in our drumline. We had actors on the snare line. We had actors on the tenor line. We had actors on the bass line. But that couldn’t hold us back.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

We had to learn new cadences at the 11th hour just because Morris Brown came in smoking.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

After Charles jumped down my throat, I jumped down my staff’s, and we all literally went around the corner at the Georgia Dome, found us a quiet spot … and the guys went to work. Nick went to work. … They took it up a whole notch and elevated the routine. When they came back, it was war. I mean, these guys were not speaking, and Charles was like, ‘Let it stay that way.’ It was like two boxers that were about to fight. These guys were not speaking.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle. … You wanted to kill them, especially after they’d smoked us in the rehearsal.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

There was an actual fight before we started filming. There was someone from Morris Brown that was on our side, playing with our group. And they checked him. Morris Brown really checked dude … like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Get him over here.’ He left from our side and went over to Morris Brown.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

People were hot, and you want that.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The percussion instructor brought me over to see what Morris Brown had cooking up. … They showed me them putting their own drums aside and [simulated] playing on the other [team’s] snares, and I thought, that’s fucking awesome.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

Charles goes, ‘Morris Brown is going to go over there and bang on A&T’s drums … we need a close-up camera here, so the reaction is absolutely real.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t tell Atlanta A&T that that’s what was gonna happen.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

Beating on someone else’s drum is a big no-no. It’s a big dis … basically like they were trying to injure the other team’s quarterback.

“It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle.”Shay Roundtree

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

When it happened, I think I just remember everybody freaking out, and it was the exact reaction that Morris Brown wanted.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

I knew that was going to happen, so when they walked up, I was preparing myself, but the rest of the drummers didn’t know.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were shocked. We took that as a real insult. It was like, Oh, shit. The reactions that you saw from Nick and everybody were real.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

They looked like, What the fuck? What happened just now? Did they really just hit my drum? I really gotta stay in formation while they’re doing this?

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We had to show that ability to withstand and hold it all in. It meant a lot when it happened, and we were hot about it. We went back and said, ‘Well, we gon’ beat on their drums.’ But it was like, ‘Nah, that’s kind of redundant.’

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We added — I don’t want to say a gymnast approach, but added different elements … more jumps, more flips, not stick flips but more people doing flips, people getting on other people’s shoulders. Cymbal players getting on other people’s shoulders, doing pushups and playing at the same time, getting on your back and having somebody play the bass drum. We added a different entertaining, performance element.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

Charles would have to say, ‘Cut,’ maybe four or five different times because we were just fully focused.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Our drumline wins … but nobody cared that that’s what was written on the script.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We laid it all out there. When you see that last and final cadence, that’s probably the one I worked on the hardest, and you get to actually see. We’re in there drumming, and sticking, throwing the sticks and catching the sticks, doing everything. By that time, we were a well-oiled machine.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

What you saw was real. Those boys were in there. They were in there playing. They were doing their thing.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Atlanta A&T gave Morris Brown way more go than anybody thought they would.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I’m super proud of that scene. That scene is special.

The Postgame: The Legacy of Drumline

In 2014, the Atlanta A&T marching band returned in Drumline: A New Beat. Originally conceived as a miniseries, it became a made-for-TV movie, told through the lens of a young female drummer who arrives on campus hoping to revitalize the fictional HBCU’s once-revered drumline. In the movie, Nick Cannon and Leonard Roberts both reprise their original roles as the now long-graduated Devon Miles and Sean Taylor. Cannon, Wendy Finerman and Jody Gerson are all credited as producers, and Don Roberts once again serves as executive band consultant. “It was executed well,” said Cannon, “but I think the higher-ups didn’t give it an opportunity to thrive as a television show.” Fifteen years since the film’s debut, the legacy of Drumline is undeniable.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

The legacy of Drumline grows, and continues to grow. No one saw it coming. They thought it was just this little film about this cool subculture.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It ended up being one of the best-reviewed films that year … very successful, and I cried when that happened, because I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Who would’ve thought that Fox’s little project in Atlanta was going to be the epic cult classic, and beyond cult classic now, that it is today? It’s been run on TV for so long that actually, 15 years later, I get recognized more now than I did in the years right after it came out, because it’s so embedded in people’s consciousnesses.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

We were told we were all a part of a little movie that ended up being a very big thing in America. A lot of young people took to it and supported it.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I’m amazed that now it’s getting to the point where … you can actually see another generation discover Drumline.

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.”GQ

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘How do you feel to have influenced a whole generation of young people?’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I’m really proud of what Drumline spawned into the culture.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I’ll be honest. I thought that really only our community, meaning the black community, was going to be able to appreciate it. … Historically black colleges, the experience of bands, that’s something that’s deeply rooted within our culture and something that, prior to Drumline, was never really talked about and never really exposed.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

People come up to me to this day, not one of them who are African-American, and they tell me how we introduced a subculture to them that they never knew existed … but that it inspired them.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We were taking something from black culture and showing it to the world, so it had to be right. It had to be correct. This was the first time that the world was going to see anything about an HBCU marching band or drumline.

Wendy FinermanProducer

No one knew about drumlines. Now they’re common knowledge.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Florida A&M thought the movie was about them. North Carolina A&T thought the movie was about them. Southern thought it was about them. Jackson State thought it was about them. Everybody sees themselves in the movie. … When I talk to these college band directors, and they see their band program in Drumline, I just feel honored that we honored them.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was part music movie, part sports movie, part superhero origin story. All of those things wrapped up in one.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

It’s the fifth quarter. We were just as important, if not more important than the football team. It was a music movie, a sports movie, all in one. That’s why it was really special.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

It’s a sports film — the discipline, and the practice. It goes hand in hand with football. It just wasn’t as cool to be in the marching band until Drumline.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Where they are now:

Dallas Austin: Runs Atlanta’s Urban Angels Studios (formerly known as D.A.R.P. Studios), while also recording out of the United Kingdom’s TAPE London studio. He is also one half of the band, Follow the Nomad, with Naz Tokio.

Nick Cannon: Second-year student at Howard University, executive producer and host of MTV’s Nick Cannon Presents: Wild ’N Out, founder/CEO of Ncredible Entertainment.

Candace Carey: Stars as “Canbe” in the indie film Ratchetville, scheduled to release on Netflix in winter of 2017.

Tina Gordon Chism: Made directorial debut with 2013’s Peeples, screenplay writer/executive producer for Hulu’s 2017 single-camera comedy pilot Crushed and screenplay writer for the forthcoming Nappily Ever After.

Wendy Finerman: Executive producer of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and Lifetime’s new Loved by the 10th Date; founder/president of Wendy Finerman productions.

GQ: Founder and creative director of Q Brothers, a collective that translates classic pieces of literature into hip-hop musicals, which he co-writes, directs, and stars in. He and his brothers’ plays have toured the world and run off-Broadway.

Jody Gerson: Chairman and CEO, Universal Music Publishing.

Shane Hurlbut: Recent cinematography work includes 2015’s Gabriele Muccino-directed Fathers and Daughters and 2017’s The Babysitter and The Adventurers.

Orlando Jones: Recent work includes starring in films Book of Love and Madiba, the STARZ series American Gods and executive producing Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands: War Within the Cartel for Amazon and Twitch.

Earl Poitier: Recent appearances include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Shots Fired and Baywatch.

Jason Price: Founder of entertainment company P.O.P. (Power of Percussion) UNPLUGGED, and artistic director of P.O.P.’D (Power of Percussion & Drums) entertainment ensemble.

Don Roberts: Director and CEO of international stage show DRUMLine Live; executive band consultant of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and BET series The Quad.

Leonard Roberts: Recent appearances include American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Magicians.

Shay Roundtree: Recently starred in 2016’s Save Me from Love.

Zoe Saldana: Stars as “Gamora” in 2018 Marvel film Avengers: Infinity War; filming Avatar 2, set to release in 2020.

Charles Stone III: Director of the forthcoming Uncle Drew, starring Kyrie Irving, LilRel Howry, Shaquille O’Neal, Lisa Leslie, and Reggie Miller. In theaters June 29, 2018.

Jason Weaver: Has appeared in 2006’s ATL, 2010’s Lottery Ticket, the animated series The LeBrons (2011–2014), and a 2016 episode of Black-ish.

Fox Searchlight parties with the stars of ‘Battle of the Sexes’ and ‘The Shape of Water’ Day 5 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — Fox Searchlight feted its latest offerings, including the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tale Battle of the Sexes, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, starring Tyrion Lannister (er, Peter Dinklage) with a swanky party Sunday night.

The studio held the party, a fixture here at the Toronto International Film Festival for more than 30 years, in the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which was specially built for opera and ballet performances. In attendance: Octavia Spencer, Billie Jean King, Andy Serkis, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Sarah Silverman, Zachary Quinto, Natalie Morales, Michael Shannon, James McAvoy, Frances McDormand and Bill Pullman.

So nobody, basically.

I went with another writer who warned me not to eat dinner because the food would be great. And there’d be plenty of it, because if there’s nothing else reliable about Hollywood types, they don’t really eat. Journalists, on the other hand, are shameless that way. Studio parties are a curious mix of industry professionals, actors and writers, and mostly you’re trying to find a good way to butt into famous people’s conversations before you wander off to the bar or grab an hors d’œuvre from a caterer’s tray. Oh, and it’s also a good way to see how tall people are in real life. McAvoy, for instance, is quite short. The women, of course, are all skinnier than seems humanly possible, but you knew that.

Anyhow, both Battle of the Sexes and The Shape of Water are hot tickets here, and I managed to catch both on Monday.

Battle of the Sexes

Courtesy of TIFF

The script for Battle of the Sexes, written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, The Full Monty) can feel a bit obvious, a common occurrence in biopics where people’s lives get boiled down to their Wikipedia essentials. For example, we see Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), King’s WTA rival, in conversation with her husband about their suspicion that King is a closeted lesbian:

Barry Court (James McKay): Isn’t she ashamed?

Margaret Court: That’s exactly what she is. And her game’s gonna fall to pieces.

And then five minutes later, that’s exactly what happens, and King loses her title to Court.

The best part of Battle of the Sexes, which is directed by the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is the titular faceoff between King (Emma Stone) and Riggs (Steve Carell). Dayton and Faris have faithfully recreated the 1973 exhibition match, which took place in the Houston Astrodome, right down to the Vegas-style plumage and cabana boys, and Riggs’ ridiculous jacket plugging Sugar Daddy candy. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but Battle of the Sexes tends to exaggerate the size difference between Riggs and King. Carell’s Riggs is a bit hulking and over-the-hill, while Stone appears daintier than King in her prime.

But the big issue with Battle of the Sexes may just be how much territory it cedes to Riggs, or rather, Carell-as-Riggs, who frankly kinda steals the movie. Some of that is the nature of Riggs’ personality: He’s a clown with a gambling problem who, instead of fixing himself, charms everyone into abetting him.

He’s a troll, yes. But he’s a charismatic troll.

The other factor that doesn’t necessarily serve Stone, or King’s story for that matter, is that Battle of the Sexes offers little in the way of revelations about King. That’s certainly a challenge, considering that she’s been a public figure for 45 years, but it’s not impossible. One exception: When King finally beats Riggs, we see her alone in the locker room after the match, crying in relief. Pressure is a privilege, as King likes to say, but one way or another, it will extract its pound of flesh.

The Shape of Water

Courtesy of TIFF

What a great time to be anybody associated with The Shape of Water, the delightful, fantastical film from director Guillermo del Toro, which just recently won the Golden Lion award for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

The Shape of Water is, on its face, about a mute maid for the fictional Occom Aerospace Research Center named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) who, in 1962, falls in love with a sea creature that has the ability to heal people. The U.S. is in the midst of the space race and is searching for something, anything, to give it a leg up on the Russians. And in del Toro’s movie, the leg just happens to be attached to a sorta-human-sorta-reptilian-sorta-amphibian sea creature who’s worshipped as a god in the Amazon. An American Occom operative named Strickland (Shannon) has captured the creature and brought it to America, where he’s now holding it captive and torturing it with a cattle prod. Eliza works with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and eventually brings her and her best friend and neighbor, Giles (Richard Spencer), into a plan to save the creature, known simply as The Asset (Doug Jones).

But of course, The Shape of Water is about so much more than rescuing a sea creature. It’s about highlighting the cruelty that results from a need to conquer, and the damage that can be done when good men do nothing. And it’s about the dangers of being so consumed with the past that the present passes you by. Still, The Shape of Water offers hope that hearts and minds can truly be changed for the better, even in the most stubborn of individuals.

As Strickland, Shannon basically embodies the worst qualities of a certain kind of man writ large: a priggish, entitled, mansplaining alpha male who seems to have swept in straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel.

Giles, on the other hand, is a committed advertising artist who refuses to acknowledge that modern times — and, in his case, photography — are passing him by. He’s consumed with watching Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Shirley Temple and Mr. Ed, and he insists on turning a blind eye to the violence being inflicted on civil rights activists in Alabama and Mississippi.

It’s easy to make much of the fact that Spencer is revisiting the role of maid in this film, and what’s more, playing one in an aeronautics facility, especially so soon after playing the enterprising Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures. But to reduce Spencer’s role in The Shape of Water simply to “the help” does a disservice both to Spencer’s artistry and the film’s message.

Eliza is literally voiceless, and at work, Zelda is often the one translating for her. In a touching moment after the film’s premiere Monday night, Spencer revealed that she has a brother who is deaf and mute. When they were growing up, he insisted that Spencer and the rest of their family speak rather than learn sign language, a decision Spencer says she regrets to this day.

Set off by an uplifting score by Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water will be one of fall’s most anticipated and highly treasured treats.

For Kenyon Martin, the next chapter includes finding peace in family and BIG3 league The 39-year-old knew finding himself outside of basketball wouldn’t be a problem

On a sunny, 83-degree day in Camden, New Jersey, more than 300 kids were gathered at the North Camden Community Center for a free basketball clinic sponsored in part by the BIG3 basketball league. Cheerleaders from the South Jersey Fire cheer squad pumped up the crowd before groups of children from first to eighth grades took center court, participating in basketball warm-up drills. The older groups, ninth grade and up, did the same on the outside courts.

In front of the community center, a black, unmarked sprinter van carrying former NBA forward/center Kenyon Martin and former NBA guard Andre Owens pulled up to the building. When the two entered, all activities temporarily ceased as a group of participants rushed to surround the ballers. From the looks on their faces, it was plain to see that some kids were unfamiliar with Martin and Owens, who were in their prime before some of them were conceived. On the other hand, there were looks of admiration from the older boys and girls who instantly recognized Martin — he was drafted No. 1 overall by the New Jersey Nets in 2000 and played four seasons for them — before they started toward him for pictures and autographs.

This is Martin’s life post-NBA retirement. Not as grueling as an NBA schedule, but just the right amount of activity to keep him busy. Outside of appearances, Martin finds himself making up for the family time he lost during his 15 hectic seasons in the NBA.

“I got five little ones, and for me, being at home, being able to take my youngest son — who’s into wrestling — to WrestleMania for his birthday means everything,” Martin said. “Going to my daughter’s ballet recitals. All that kind of stuff. That’s what outweighed the NBA for me. Not playing in the league and only [playing in the BIG3] one day a week, it’s an opportunity for me to be there and do things that I missed out on while I was playing and just growing and building as a family. I just want to be their dad, be their father. They didn’t ask to be here. I love them dearly, and I’m going to do my part.”

These days, Martin represents a league that is quickly becoming a favorite among fans of BIG3, the 3-on-3 basketball league created by Ice Cube. Martin serves as captain for team Trilogy, which includes players Al Harrington, Rashad McCants, James White, Dion Glover, Jannero Pargo and is coached by former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Rick Mahorn.

Kenyon Martin #4 of Trilogy drives to the basket against Reggie Evans #30 of Killer 3s during week one of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Barclays Center on June 25, 2017 in New York City.

Al Bello/Getty Images

According to Martin, Ice Cube contacted him directly to discuss his vision for the league and the mission behind it. It didn’t take long to persuade Martin to take up the offer to join other former players back on the court for competitive games. Before they hung up, Martin was sold.

“[Ice Cube] grew up a Lakers fan, of course, but a lot of us have been a part of people’s living rooms and barbershop talks for the last 20-plus years,” Martin said. “For you not to see those guys play anymore … Ice Cube was giving us the opportunity to continue our careers at a less strenuous pace: playing half-court, playing 3-on-3 and only one game per week.”

‘Basketball wasn’t my life’

Before retirement, Martin was confident in his abilities to continue playing basketball and knew he still had what it took to help a team win, but he decided to make his 15th season his last go-round in the professional realm after noticing how much interest from NBA teams had dwindled. In July 2015, Martin made it official.

“I loved basketball, I loved competing, I loved being out there, but I looked at it as I was going to work and I treated it as such,” Martin said. “But basketball wasn’t my life. Some people don’t know what to do without the game.”

“Teams didn’t have any interest in my services, and that’s a telltale sign,” Martin said. “… Once I got waived, that was my key for me to step away. I’m too prideful to be put in those kinds of situations. I know my abilities and I know what I was still capable of doing, but if can’t nobody else see it and these other teams can’t see it, then I can’t force them to see it. It was time for me to put the NBA in the past.”

Although the decision was easy for Martin, he hadn’t anticipated the rough transition from a professional basketball player to immediately finding a normalized lifestyle that worked for him. One thing Martin knew for sure was that defining himself outside of basketball wouldn’t be a problem. For Martin, basketball was the way he earned a living — it was never his identity.

“I loved basketball, I loved competing, I loved being out there, but I looked at it as I was going to work and I treated it as such,” Martin said. “But basketball wasn’t my life. Some people don’t know what to do without the game. They don’t know where to turn to. From what I grew up and came out of, making it out of high school was a big deal. If you do anything after that, it’s a plus. Where I’m from … no former athletes come back and talk. None of that. I had to learn on the fly. There was no, ‘You can be good at this if you do this.’ For me, it was just making sure I was a productive member of society and not being a burden to nobody. I played basketball, football and baseball growing up. I played all three of them up until high school. I was tall and athletic, so I just decided to stick with it.”

Kenyon Martin #4 of Trilogy and Rashard Lewis #9 of the 3 Headed Monsters walk off of the court together after their game during week two of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Spectrum Center on July 2, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Yet, catching a glimpse of basketball games still sparked feelings of frustration. The thought of not being able to walk onto an NBA court was emotionally taxing, but Martin prioritized his time by setting aside moments during his day to “soul search” and found ways to center himself through his family.

Out of his five kids — three girls and two boys, ages 16, 14, 12, 3 and 2 — Martin noticed the natural skills his son, Kenyon Martin Jr., possessed in the sport his father chose more than two decades ago. The high school sophomore and eldest of Martin’s kids is already on recruiters’ radar.

“He’s 16 now, and he’s more skillful than I was at his age,” Martin said. “He handles and dribbles the ball better, but I was always athletic and I always played hard. That separated me from a lot of people. And he’s getting there, but he’s just starting to turn a corner where he realizes he has to play harder than everybody all the time. I was successful at what he’s trying to do, which is be a professional basketball player, so all I can do is guide him. I know what it takes to get there. I’m just trying to help him achieve his goals in life. It’s my job and my obligation to give him all the tools and put him in the right situation so he can try to make that happen for himself.”

Giving the fans what they want

When he’s not juggling family and basketball, Martin is spending time finding his next venture.

“I’ve been doing the TV thing. Me and Michael Rapaport have an NBA show [Two Man Weave] we do,” Martin said. “There’s a new coconut water I’m part owner in called Life Recovery; it’s in 7-Eleven now. I have a car service in Los Angeles that we’re trying to expand, but I’m just trying to figure it out. I have a few other things that I’m interested in. Moving forward, I think I’m a hell of a cook — I can get on that grill. I’m a Texan, so I think my barbecue is immaculate. I might do some TV shows for cooking and a few other things. I’m just trying to see what’s gonna stick without being pigeonholed to one thing with basketball. I’m just trying to put some things in a few different hats and see what sticks for me.”

Martin hasn’t been on the court since Week 1 of the BIG3’s schedule because of a pulled hamstring, an injury he’d never suffered throughout his collegiate or professional career, but he will be ready to roll for Week 5 in Chicago. The following stop, July 30 in Dallas, will be a homecoming of sorts for Martin, who grew up in Oak Cliff, an area of South Dallas.

“Dallas is going to be fun,” Martin said. “It’s not my first time playing there, but this is something new to give friends and family the opportunity to play. It’s been a few years, so it gives them an opportunity to get to see me do my thing again on this level with these guys. My mom and my family are all excited.”