Time to Go-Go: original performance ‘Making The Go-Go Band’ honors D.C. music

November 11, 2023

Photo courtesy of courtesy of Caitlin Lawlor

Georgetown Theater & Performance Studies and Black Theatre Ensemble debuted their original musical, “Making The Go-Go Band” on Nov. 9 in the Davis Performing Arts Center. The show is just one production of the Department of Performing Arts’ 2023-2024 season “Together We Go-Go!” which celebrates D.C.’s official music genre: go-go music.

“Go-go music is an experience. It’s a way of life,” Shorty Corleone, prominent go-go musician, music producer, and music educator to local teenagers, said. “ It’s the fabric and the sound and the energy of the DMV. You have your classic go-go sound of the original beat still being celebrated to this day, but then you have a new celebration of the beat by the next generation of creatives, which folks will experience at the play.”

The genre, influenced by funk, soul, R&B, and reggae, emerged in D.C. during the 1970s and became an integral part of the thriving African American community. However, factors like gentrification and targeted policing at concerts contributed to the decline in go-go music. In 2019, a Metro PCS store which had been playing go-go music for 25 years in the historically Black U Street neighborhood was ordered to turn the music off after complaints from residents of a luxury apartment. This prompted D.C. residents to fight for the genre’s place in D.C. through the movement #DontMuteDC.

“We really want to tell the story, not about go-go being pushed out, but about go-go taking up space and transforming space and empowering communities,” Natsu Onoda Power, professor in Theater & Performance Studies and artistic director for the Davis Performing Arts Center, said.

The lobby of the Davis Performing Arts Center now displays a small exhibit curated by Soyica Colbert, professor of African American studies and performing arts, which tracks the history and cultural prominence of the go-g0 music scene in D.C. The play also features segments devoted to teaching go-go history, including a tribute to “The Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown.

The musical is “part documentary, part interactive game show, part concert, part theater,” according to Onoda Power. “It’s not actually a hybrid between go-go and theater. I feel like it’s something new that emerged out of that encounter. So it’s neither. You’ll have a great time. It’s a great party – Oh, it’s also part party,” she said.

Corleone said he remembers first experiencing go-go music by listening to his uncle’s and cousin’s tapes. “Everything was infectious,” he said. “Your ears were like, ‘Hey man, what just happened?’ So you’re automatically pushing rewind to catch that. When you get to hear a P.A. tape you never get tired of hearing it because you’re picking up another sound, another beat, or when a cowbell comes in, or when a cowbell drops out, or when they go into percussion break, and then the keyboards come back in.”

Audience interaction, particularly through call-and-response and dancing, is vital to go-go music. Often during rehearsals, Onoda Power said she finds it hard to sit still. “I feel like I dance the entire rehearsal when the band is here,” she said.

Go-go beats are often improvised from interactions between band members and audience reactions. On Oct. 25, the cast of the show gave a preview concert outside of White Gravenor.

“It’s the freedom of expression when the beat happens. Everybody’s doing their own thing,” Corleone said about how the musicians work together. In the crowd, “Everybody has their own dance. It’s not like a turn-up dance where you’re in a club and everybody’s doing the same arms and shoulders movement. People just freely express themselves to whatever rhythm they have.”

In addition to seeing musicians interact with each other on stage, audiences also experience a jam session between performers and musicians from Ghana and Japan via Zoom. 

“They’re gonna bring rhythms, and we’ll have our rhythms, and we’re gonna combine them and continue the crank, if you will,” said Corleone. “We’re gonna do a nice mash up in the jam session. So folks got to be present just to witness it all.”

“Making The Go-Go Band” isn’t the first go-go musical to be performed at Georgetown. In 2016, students performed in Onoda Power’s and Corleone’s original musical “Wind Me Up Maria.” Onoda Power said it was challenging to blend go-go with theater because of the genre’s “spontaneous” nature.

“[Go-go musicians] don’t play the same song the same way all the time,” she said. “But when you put it in theater, you have to because of cues and choreography.” In creating “Making The Go-Go Band,” Onoda Power said she wanted to better honor “spontaneity of go-go culture.” 

“So instead of doing a traditional musical, it’s audience interactive. There’s a lot of improvisation, and the band has much stronger involvement in the content this time,” she said. ”There’s also a dance floor in the theater.”

Go-go music is sharing, Corleone said. “It’s still telling a story, this sound. Peeling away the layers on how infectious the groove is, how infectious the beat is, how infectious it is to create, you know, go-go music. It’s exciting. Because when a beat hits, no matter what you’re going through, you’re gonna find a reason to party and celebrate.”

Making The Go-Go Band opened Nov. 9 and will run until the 18th. More information can be found on the Department of Performing Arts website.

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