A lesson on the blues

Philly Fringe 2023: Urban Arts Movement presents Vincent Johnson’s Stank upon a Time: A Story about Funk

3 minute read
A performer in casualwear in movement, their head tilted back and face expressive, a full band in the background
Vincent Johnson’s 'Stank upon a Time' is more than just performance art. (Photo by Adriana Imhof.)

It would be easy to dismiss Vincent Johnson’s Stank upon a Time as a self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness rant set to a strong bass beat. That’s a real part of it, but beneath the transgressive silliness (as if recognizing the danger of being too serious), Johnson makes a sharp point about art and revolution and commodification. As performance art, it sweeps the audience up in a surreal, fragmented lesson on the history of Black music and civil rights.

We’ve got the blues

Wearing loose workout shorts and a plaid, sleeveless shirt with a picture of Jimi Hendrix on the back, Johnson “samples” his own words, mimicking voices that evoke the rhetoric and style of the civil rights movement—“what ethic … when the law can go no further,” “a bridge waist high … enough for us to jump.” Bassist Liss Leigh and synthesizer player and music director Lee Clarke back the words with an easy bass rhythm while videographer Aidan Un circles the room, photographing the audience. He pauses, focusing on my notepad as if it has some special meaning. Reviewers connect audiences to the arts, but I wonder about our role in commodifying the cultures we review.

It's an audience participation show, and Johnson asks us to stand for a “prayer,” which is Chet Baker’s version of the song “It Could Happen to You” (by James Van Heusen and Johnny Burke). He sits behind a set of drums, chasing the beat. An African drum sits before the live band, but no one plays it. Then, the “lecture” begins with Mississippi Delta Blues. Johnson introduces himself as Boo Boo in a rich drawl and talks about the context: Black skin, burnt to ash from the sun, or the ropes, like a raisin in the sun, he says, namechecking Lorraine Hansberry’s play, and then Zora Neale Hurston.

When he asks the audience, “What are the blues?” someone answers “one-four-five” to Johnson’s great joy. It’s the chord progression at the heart of the blues and the foundation of funk. He then leads us in the count: one, two, three, two, two, three … While the music plays, sound tech William Robinson loops a recording of Johnson’s oratorical fragments, with the word “rock” rising out of the background. The music, we are reminded, served as the soundtrack to revolution.

From the streets

Although advertised in the dance category, Stank gives us very little dancing. Johnson shuffles across the floor with bent knees or other small moves and invites us to sense the syncopation that has entered the music. At its core, the performance is the expression of a personal relationship with the art and its history that simmers below the rational.

As the evening neared its end, Johnson invited the audience to leave if they wished or to stay to listen to something he wanted to read. The few of us who remained got the lecture that tied it all together: how James Brown used the same chord progression as the blues and how funk expanded out of that. Jazz is not dead, he says, nor the blues, nor funk, but the music changes and adds layers. He ties street dance back to the early dances and points out that even the term “street dance” diminishes the skill and culture of the forms, stripping it down to its simplest iterations and selling it as the dominant music of our time while its original creators are dismissed as artists.

Johnson says the show changes and will be different next week, with additional performers.

Know before you go: this event includes some audience interaction and is appropriate for ages 18 and up due to violent themes and adult language.

What, When, Where

Stank upon a Time: A Story about Funk. By Vincent Johnson, presented by Urban Arts Movement and Philly Kerplop. $15. September 16 and 23, 2023, at UAM Headquarters, 2100 Chestnut Street, 2nd Floor, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.


Urban Arts Movement is on the second floor of a building with no elevator or other assistive means to reach the performance area.

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