David Byrne's Scene-Stealing Dancers Break Down The Making Of 'American Utopia'

Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba on the 'naturalistic' choreography, getting makeup advice from Spike Lee and singing with Mavis Staples.

10/20/2020 1:29:00 PM

Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba on the 'naturalistic' choreography, getting makeup advice from Spike Lee and singing with Mavis Staples.

Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba on the 'naturalistic' choreography, getting makeup advice from Spike Lee and singing with Mavis Staples.

,” a soaring rock anthem he recorded with St. Vincent, finds Byrne turning to the boob tube “to know what folks were thinking.”During “American Utopia,” Byrne made the political subtext more overt (though never preachy). He points out that many of his musicians are immigrants and announces voter-registration tables in the theater’s lobby. But the most powerful moment comes toward the show’s end, when Byrne and his band cover “

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,” a Janelle Monáe protest chant that lists the names of Black Americans killed by police violence. Byrne saw Monáe perform the song at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017 and asked her permission before including it.Kuumba:When I first was asked to be a part of the show, seeing that David decided to do this song was the reason that I said yes. Because one, I’m a Black woman and I am consistently being aware of who I work with and why and how and in what capacity and the many ways I’m representing myself and my community and having artistic integrity. For an older white man to put this in his work when he does not have to necessarily, to not have to be accountable for these things, for him to take that choice and not only just implement it in the show, but continuously implement this from day one was the main reason why I said yes. I was like, “OK, I can fuck with this.”

Giarmo:We did modify it almost everywhere we went around the world. We added names and we changed names depending on where we were, which is really unfortunate. In America, you could pretty much find an unarmed Black person that was murdered by the police in almost every place that we toured. It was a really interesting experience. We had a lot of discussions about it on the bus at the beginning when we were on the road: where it is in the show, how it works with the show. It was a really experiential process for us. On the road, it was our last encore. It was the final song.

Kuumba:I felt like with this song specifically and with Broadway, my mom had an understanding because we had some confusions when we first went to Broadway [where they performed “Talmbout” earlier in the setlist]. Like, “No, this is supposed to be the last song. When did the switch come around?” But as we know, it’s Broadway, the Great White Way, and we’re down the street from “Lion King” and “Frozen.” My mom was just summing it up as, “It seems that he’s taking this approach and is trying to bring us through to the other side of leaving with hope.” I think on tour it was a really wonderful way of ending it because it’s very easy to get into this euphoric mindset when you go to a concert and leave feeling on cloud nine to escape your reality. Since we’re living in this home on Broadway, I think you can’t necessarily throw mud on everybody and walk away and come back the next day over and over again. In the realistic world that we live in, we know we have to hold hands and walk people through difficult moments. I think that David took it upon himself to find a way of how to come out on the other side with “One Fine Day” and “Road to Nowhere.” We’re still on a road to nowhere, but we can do this together.

GIarmo:It’s a really important message that a lot of his audience might not hear coming from someone that doesn’t look like them. David has this privilege and opportunity to maybe reach an older, white audience that wouldn’t find Janelle Monáe on their own.

Michael Loccisano via Getty ImagesSpike Lee and David Byrne at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 4.Enter Spike LeeTo preserve “American Utopia,” Byrne called upon Lee, who has previously filmed a Luciano Pavarotti benefit concert, “The Original Kings of Comedy” and the Broadway musical “Passing Strange.” Byrne

told The New York Timeshe sought out Lee because of the director’s visual flair and willingness to confront social issues. Lee didn’t merely record the show, though. He immersed himself in it so the final product would feel as dynamic as possible. (Lee had to live up to the legacy of “Stop Making Sense,” the beloved Talking Heads concert film directed by the great Jonathan Demme.) So he set up overhead cameras, plotted out meticulous angles that emphasize the performers’ movements and captured the show multiple times alongside cinematographer Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). By then, the magic of the experience was evident to everyone involved.

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Giarmo:I think it’s always great to talk about how long things take. Spike did come and see our show 20 times before he filmed it. He is a genius, clearly, but he also saw it 20 times. It’s a lot of work.Kuumba:Aside from him filming the live show once, we did extra shots with a limited audience and he was really trying to get these close-cut angles that he may have felt really passionate about. It felt like we were all understanding it more once we kept going through the process of the motions. There were some actual conversations of specific angles that were being caught. I know that bird’s-eye-view angle is very beautiful and important, especially for “Burning Down the House,” to capture these beautiful formations that we do.

Giarmo:Spike Lee did tell me to wear red lipstick. I’d been doing a nudy pink. He said that wasn’t enough. It was a really exciting surprise to get that note. He was like, “I need you to have fire-engine red, FDNY red, and I need the nails to match.” I’m a drag queen, so a matte red lip is a tricky lip, for all your readers out there that may not understand the nuances. Especially a liquid lipstick. You’ve got to make sure you have the right brand, the right finish, one that’s going to last through the show. I had to experiment for a couple performances to make sure that it was the right one.

Kuumba:You would always see his glasses peeking over the edge of the stage in the corner. Like, “What is that? Oh, Spike.”Giarmo:The icing on the damn cake was when Mavis Staples came and saw our show. Then after the show, she was just hanging out and started singing and a bunch of us just sang “Slippery People” with Mavis Staples.

Kuumba:Sometimes you just get surprised and you look at each other onstage like, “Is that who I think it is?” Bette Midler fucked my mind.Giarmo:She had a turban and sunglasses. Seeing the film, I was thrilled to see all of the little tidbits, for lack of a better term, like the musical-theater cheesiness that we bring. I will say, at least for me, when I knew that Bette Midler was in the audience, I kicked that up a couple of octaves.

Kuumba:Michelle Obama came. I don’t think we knew until that day, though. You’ve got to know for security reasons. Sometimes it’s a really nice surprise and you just ham it up a little bit.Giarmo:I think maybe on most Broadway shows there’s more of a fourth wall where the actors don’t look [at the audience]. We’re used to these concerts where it’s all about looking at people and connecting to individuals. On Broadway, we just did the same thing. It’s so funny. You’re looking into people’s eyes and encouraging them. At first I think people were scared. Or, “You can see me? What?” But no, you’re here too. It’s cool. Come on.

Kuumba:“Once in a Lifetime,” one moment that hit me was just from touring. I remember one show, this one kid just bawling his eyes out in the front row. It just gives such a sense of freedom onstage. We’re just shifting and moving through each other’s space, jumping and dancing with everybody in the audience. There were some really emotional moments that I captured every time we sang that song that I saw in specific audience members. And I always love to connect with other fellow Black women in the crowd that jump up and sing with me. It’s like I’m a stake in a part of this history, and it feels sweet.

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These quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity. Read more: HuffPostWomen »

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