By Hailey Wharram
“There is no DC without Go-Go, and there is no Go-Go without DC.” So said Mayor Muriel Bowser in 2020, after signing legislation that formally declared Go-Go the official music of the nation’s capital.
A musical mosaic of funk, R&B, and Afro-Caribbean styles, Go-Go originated in DC during the 1960s and 1970s thanks in large part to Chuck Brown, a beloved musician known as the Godfather of Go-Go. Anchored by infectious percussion, the genre’s bewitching, grooving feel makes staying still while listening virtually impossible.
Making the Go-Go Band is a new, experimental musical production that celebrates the special role Go-Go music has played in shaping DC’s modern history. This original showcase is the result of a creative collaboration between Georgetown students, DMV high schoolers, and local artists. Co-led by Charles “Shorty Corleone” Garris and Natsu Onoda Power, the show blends traditional musical performance, theatrical storytelling, documentary, and game show elements to craft something truly special.
Georgetown University’s Department of Performing Arts (specifically, the Theater and Performance Studies Program and the Black Theater Ensemble) is hosting this love letter to DC’s vibrant musical landscape in the Gonda Theatre through November 18.
The most compelling facet of Making the Go-Go Band’s construction is its dedication to establishing intimacy with the audience — even amid dazzling lights and vivacious energy, the ambiance feels delectably cozy. The crowd is not meant to sit and watch quietly. Rather, with songs structured around call and response, an audience Q&A, and even a game of Go-Go trivia, the show makes the audience feel just as involved in the performance as those on stage. The musical concludes with a volcanic crescendo of boogieing as people jump out of their seats to bust a move on the makeshift dance floor in the pit in front of the stage.
Thrillingly, by prioritizing viewer participation, Making the Go-Go Band finds itself in a constant state of flux. For example, immediately after intermission, the audience is asked to request a song for the band to play, and the winner of the trivia competition also wins the opportunity to submit a request. This jukebox element delightfully enables everyone in the crowd to cultivate a unique experience tailored to their musical preferences.
Furthermore, every night during the “Go-Go to the World” segment at the beginning of the second act, a different musician from around the world joins the show over Zoom. In addition to engaging in a dialogue about their music with the audience, each artist submits a recording that the band onstage is then tasked with improvising alongside. On opening night, the guest artist was Yoshihiko Fueki, a Japanese percussionist specializing in the Wadaiko drum.
“Wadaiko was originally used for festivals and rituals to communicate with the divine. It’s really loud so the gods can hear what’s playing,” Power said when translating Fueki’s words from Japanese to English.
Even when the production’s perpetual reinvention in real-time occasionally lends itself to some minor hiccups when transitioning into improvisation, the hypervisibility of the show’s spontaneity only adds to its charm.
Making the Go-Go Band also establishes intimacy with the local community by incorporating a plethora of jokes and historical anecdotes specifically catered to DC residents. Stories such as the inception of the #DontMuteDC movement at a local T-Mobile store and the history of Prince & Princess, a popular shoe store in Georgetown, hit close to home both metaphorically and literally for DC audiences.
The magnificent set design by Natsu Onoda Power balances aesthetic beauty with clever utility. From the skyline silhouettes of iconic local architecture such as the Washington Monument, the Museum of African American History, and the Capitol to the outline of the District on the floor of the stage (with multicolored panels marking different neighborhoods), just looking at the stage is enough to rouse community pride, even when the night’s full-fledged festivities are yet to unfold. While the map is certainly pleasing to the eye, by using movable signs to represent city streets and sites, the map also proves useful in anchoring the viewer in a tangible, physical relationship to each mentioned location. Additionally, each side of the stage is adorned with a video screen in the shape of the DC flag. These screens are integral to the show’s success; they display the words that the audience chants during every song of the night.
The most impressive moment of set design comes when telling the story of Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott, a Go-Go musician whose band E.U. (Experience Unlimited) experienced smashing success during the 1980s. While sharing his rise to fame, performers move storybook panels and character pieces around on a table beneath a camera that then projects the image onto a larger screen hanging above center stage. The careful attention paid to telling Sugar Bear’s tale in such a grandiose yet tender fashion illustrates just how dearly he is revered by the show’s creators and Go-Go lovers alike.
While Making the Go-Go Band is dedicated to exploring the genre’s history, the show is equally concerned with preserving Go-Go’s future. In a particularly powerful moment, cast members Cameren Evans and Ian Timoteo Franza take to the microphone to share Go-Go’s more recent history. While Go-Go earned its name because “it just keeps going and going and doesn’t stop,” Franza explained, today “nearly four decades later, the music comes and goes.” As he speaks, Evans echoes his words in soft yet slicing coos: “How long?” “Is faith enough?”
Though none of us have a crystal ball, the palpable passion shown on behalf of Making the Go-Go Band’s multi-generational cast, band, and crew makes one thing crystal clear: at least for the time being, Go-Go is not going anywhere. The genre is in safe hands, cradled by a community dedicated to keeping the music flowing for many decades to come.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
Making the Go-Go Band: a new musical plays through November 18, 2023, presented by Georgetown University’s Department of Performing Arts Theater and Performance Studies Program in partnership with Black Theatre Ensemble performing in the Gonda Theatre, Georgetown University Davis Performing Arts Center, 149 Old North Way, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($3 students, $10 general) online.
ASL-interpreted performance November 16.
COVID Safety: Wearing a mask is optional. GU’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center is here.
Hailey Wharram is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University. She is majoring in English and double-minoring in journalism and film and media studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. In addition to writing for DC Theater Arts, Hailey also writes about arts and culture for The Georgetowner and The Georgetown Voice. She is available for contact at [email protected].
This article is part of DC Theater Arts’ new DC Theater U. initiative, which trains university students in the art of theater criticism and fosters connections among university students across the DMV.
Making the Go-Go Band: a new musical
Created by GU Students & Local Artists
With Charles “Shorty Corleone” Garris & Natsu Onoda Power
Eric KumHo Chun
Ian Timoteo Franza
Percussion: Quentin “ShortyDoug” Ivey, Thomas “Congo-Jack” Pearson
Drums: Antonio “Tony Bump” Giles, Kenny “Kwick” Gross, Joel “Strawberry Joel” Sturdivant
Lead/Rhythm Guitar: Dustin Garza Jacques Johnson
Bass: Stephon “Bassface” Woodland
Keyboard: Owen Posnett, Sterling Russell, Dane Tedder
Trumpet: Maya Dow
Violin: Christina Pan
Coordinating Music Producer: Marvin D. Bryson
Band Engineer: Calvin “Cal Dog” Jackson
Charles “Shorty Corleone” Garris and Natsu Onoda Power: Co-Leaders
Alicia DiGiorgi: Director of Production
John D. Alexander: Lighting Design
Stephanie Parks: Costume Design/Mentor
Veronica J. Lancaster: Video Design
navi: Sound Design
Shee Shee: Jin Stage Manager
Nayab Shiraz: Assistant Stage Manager
Amanda Baptista: Props Artisan
Bella Costantino: Wardrobe Supervisor
Dorothy Barnes-Driggers: Costume Shop Manager
Holden Gunster: Technical Director
Ben Harvey: Head Electrician
Lily Marino: Assistant Head Electrician
Seoyun Yoo: Light Board Operator
Molly Kenney: Sound Mixer/Operator
Maya Ray: Video Mixer/Operator
Camila Madero: Run Crew
Soyica Diggs Colbert: Dramaturgy
Genevieve Grenier: Community Engagement
DJ: Mason Leath
‘Together we Go-Go!’: GU announces 2023/24 theater season (news story, July 19, 2023)
‘Wind Me Up, Maria!: A Go-Go Musical’ at Georgetown University (review by John Stoltenberg, November 4, 2016)