To close their 25th anniversary season, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre chose a musical extravaganza, Jared “Choclatt” Crawford‘s wildly percussive autobiographical journey “Hit It!” which celebrates the drum-infused music of Big Band sounds, Latin styles, rhythm and blues, soul and today’s hip hop masters. Spark goes behind the scenes as the star, director, cast and crew of “Hit It!” prepare for its world premiere.
The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre was founded in 1985 by artistic director Stanley E. Williams and executive director Quentin Easter. Named for Lorraine Hansberry, the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, the company strove to showcase the work of African American playwrights and give voice to an underrepresented population in Bay Area theater.
Williams and Easter felt that the Bay Area’s rich variety of cultures wasn’t visible on the stages of mainstream theaters. Convinced that these theaters were underestimating theatergoers’ desire to see plays representing diverse cultural experiences, they produced work by playwrights such as Ntozake Shange and August Wilson and commissioned new works by local writers. Their belief has been validated by an audience that consistently fills the 300-seat theater and that considers the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre a beloved and integral part of the Bay Area cultural scene.
At the age of 3, Choclatt Crawford began playing drums. At the age of 12, he found his singing voice. Performing in subway stations and on the sidewalks of New York City, Crawford became one of the New York Bucket Drummers. Crawford caught the attention of Broadway producer George C. Wolfe and tap-dancing prodigy Savion Glover. The two asked him to choreograph the on-stage percussion for “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” as well as to join the cast as a featured performer.
Opening on Broadway in 1996, “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” traced centuries of African American history through evocative music and dance. The show had a nearly three-year run, then Crawford moved on to create and star in “Keep Bangin’,” a critically acclaimed musical featuring different drumming styles from around the world.
In “Hit it!” Crawford took his own coming-of-age story and created a musical under the direction of Williams, with choreography by Antonio Naranjo. The show’s book (the text and narrative of the production) is made up of poems by “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” writer reg E. Gaines that pay homage to jazz history and Manhattan’s African American heritage. The book also includes story segments from Crawford’s life written by André C. Andrée, who is Crawford’s father and a regular performer at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.
As Crawford’s character takes a magical ride through the subways of New York, each subway stop represents a different style of percussion-driven urban music. The audience follows him on an odyssey through the history of drumming, from the Big Band sounds of Chic Webb, Max Roach, Cab Calloway and Buddy Rich to the Latin styles of Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Celia Cruz. Crawford also covers rhythm and blues/soul legends Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin as well as hip hop performers Sheila E., Grand Master Flash, Doug E. Fresh and Run-DMC.