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Theater Mon Oct 03 2011
When it comes to HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) football, if the game is considered the first down, then the halftime marching band show is definitely a touchdown. Here, Don Roberts, creator and director of Drumline Live, the stage adaptation of the hit movie Drumline that starred Nick Cannon, discusses the HBCU marching band tradition and its impact on popular culture.
How and when did the idea to bring the movie Drumline to the theater stage come about?
The vision came during the course of the movie; I was the executive band consultant, which meant I was responsible for anything band-related--making Nick Cannon look like a drummer and things like that. A conversation came up about how great it would be to put something like this on stage and that never left my mind. Around 2005, we formed a corporation called Halftime Live and did a small tour of the show in the Southeast corner [of the United States] and out of the blue, we got a call from Columbia Artists Management, Inc. (CAMI), asking us if we would be interested in partnering with them to put the show on the road. And from that moment on, we've been partners.
You served as an executive consultant for the movie version--did you face any challenges when you created Drumline Live?
There were challenges--the biggest one was the question people would always ask: "How do you put a marching band on stage?" CAMI handled that part and told us to just focus on creating and directing the show.
I guess in many ways, with the intricate choreography and showmanship, marching band halftime shows are, in a sense, already "theatrical."
They are. From the choreography to the lighting, it's all theatrical.
The movie version greatly emphasized the history and rich legacy surrounding HBCU marching bands--does the theater version follow suit?
No doubt about it. When we did Drumline, I spoke with Dallas Austin, the movie's executive producer, and told him I wanted HBCU band directors to be proud and feel that I covered the true HBCU history. It's the same for this show--I want to know that when they see it, they'll see a true representation of the history and what it's about. I got calls from band directors from across the country who have already seen the show and they love it.
As you know, being an HBCU alumnus yourself, marching bands--even the dancers--are an extremely integral part of the HBCU experience. Why do you think that is?
The HBCU band program is unlike any other band program in the country. Outside of the black bands, you rarely see dancers; you see flags and majorettes. The dancers in our show work extremely hard; they're very technically sound. If you think they're just going to dance and be "eye candy," you're going to be surprised.
In the film, the music focused mainly on R&B and hip-hop; however, the stage version will feature other genres, including gospel music. Talk about why you chose to incorporate different types of music for this production.
We start out with music from Africa; without Africa; there would be no HBCU bands. We also feature gospel music because church is a big part of the HBCU experience as well.
Tell us a little bit about the cast--are they all theatrical performers? Were any of them actually a member of an HBCU marching band?
We have an incredible cast--90% of it comes from an HBCU band. Mostly none of them had actual theater experience before this show, but that's not a bad thing; they're true and raw HBCU performers that have been molded for the theatrical world.
Have any of the stars of the film version (Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, et al) seen the stage version yet?
I was told Nick is aware of the show and has heard good things about it.
Given the uniqueness of the HBCU experience, what would you say about the show, to people who hail from different musical backgrounds who are not as familiar with the experience or the music?
We do surveys at the end of the shows and most of the comments we get are "I'm so surprised" or "I enjoyed the show more than I thought I would." This show, whether you're a musician or non-musician, is going to make you laugh, cry, and rejoice. I tell people all the time, "Good music is good music--no matter where it comes from." And even for those who come from an HBCU marching band who think they've seen it all--we've got something for them, too!
What will the audience see during the performance?
We're excited about bringing Drumline Live to Chicago; it's really one of the markets we wanted to be in. Prepare for the unexpected; it's an indescribable show that you won't find anywhere. Some people will come in expecting to see the movie Drumline but they're going to be in for a shock--it's actually better than the movie. And if you're a typical theatergoer, you will get "theater," but you're also going to get things you didn't expect!
Catch Drumline Live at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy, Saturday, October 29 at 8pm and Sunday, October 30 at 3pm. Tickets are $30-$72 and are on sale online, by phone, 800-982-2787 or the theatre box office.