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Get On Up: The Forum Theatre explores new interpretations of James Brown's music

courtesy photo

The Forum Theatre's new show is a night of dancing, groovin' music and reminiscing about the life and work of the "Godfather of Soul."

One of the most influential soul artists of the 20th and 21st centuries will be highlighted at Wichita's Forum Theatre this weekend. He recorded 85 albums and 144 singles.

Shelton MBA, assistant professor of music theater and dance at Friends University, is one of the actors who will interpret the music of James Brown at the Forum Theatre for a new show called Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, Words and Music of James Brown.

James Brown Forum.jpg
Carla Eckels
Actress Adrienne DeGraftenreed and Kevin Marlo prepare a duet to the song “It’s A Man’s, Man’s Man’s World" by James Brown. DeGraftenreed got the surprise chance to meet James Brown as a teenager and sing along with him.

He leans down and listens intently to a track with the voice of the man dubbed "the Godfather of Soul," and spent six decades in show business before his death in 2006. MBA practices singing and dancing to Brown's music.

"He's having such a great time on stage and on the track, and you're just jamming out to it with him," MBA says. "But the moment you start to do what he does with his voice, I'm like, 'Ow,' or I'm like, 'Whoa, how did he make this? How did he sustain this?' And it kind of shows you the resilience and the durability of his voice to last throughout the years. So ... it's ... tricky, but it's a lot of fun at the same time"

Tricky and a lot of fun, even including MBA sliding into the James Brown splits, perhaps more than once.

"We're still framing that. If I feel really good after the first one, there might be 2, 3, 4. But, I'm going to make sure that the audience catches the spirit of James Brown."

That's also what Actress Adrienne DeGraftenreed wants to capture when she sings and co-hosts the show. She remembers back in the late 60s dancing with her friends at a café in Monroe, Louisiana, when a fancy car pulled up to the door.

"We were playing one of James Brown's songs, and lo and behold, James Brown stepped out of this car, and we just went just mad, just screaming and hollering and just, we had forgotten all about the music and dancing and eating and whatever else we were doing," DeGraftenreed says.

"We all ran to the little screen door. Everybody had a screen door back then. So, we were all standing in the door. The man couldn't hardly get in, you know, and we were just starstruck. It was just a wonderful time in our lives. Our hearts were beating fast. He walks in and I guess he noticed that we were playing his song because back then we had jukeboxes. So, he started singing and we were singing and dancing, and it was like we had our own little private concert."

Shelton MBA - James Brown.jpg
Carla Eckels
Actor Sheldon MBA readies himself at rehearsal to sing the songs of James Brown.

Kathy Hauptman is the producing artistic director at The Forum. She says the production will include different performers and a live band in an effort to get people to feel the music.

"James Brown is very significant in the world of popular music, and I think sometimes people don't realize that," Hauptman says. "They think of him about for the flash and the dance and all the pizzazz behind him. But he was really instrumental in developing a whole new style of music, which was funk, and from funk came hip hop and the kind of music that ... we listen to ... nowadays, modern times. And he was very instrumental in getting that started. He's been honored by the Kennedy Center. He's received multiple honors, so there's much more to him than the flash of James Brown.

"We look for people that can sing this style. We look for a balance of men and women of just different styles, different abilities, and most of all, if they can do this kind of music."

James Brown Forum 2.jpg
Carla Eckels
Actor Alexander Ogburn practices singing “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” by James Brown while being accompanied by keyboardist and actor Keith Marlo.

Associate Producer Aaron Profit is primarily responsible for the overall visual attributes of each production at the Forum. Profit says he's excited to see the dance moves and what else the show has to offer.

"I think this will encourage people to dig deeper into the things that James Brown has done for our community and for our world as a culture here," Profit says. "I love it the most because my kids get to see this, and they go home educated. They go home intrigued about what's going on here at The Forum, as well as what his contributions to the generation has done."

Actor Keith Marlo is the keyboardist for the show. He's been living and performing overseas and recently wrapped up a gig on a cruise ship. He will sing It's A Man's, Man's Man's World as a duet with Adrienne DeGraftenreed.

"It's a good match-up of voices, textures. We're trying to stay true to the James Brown version, but still kind of do our own thing. So it's ... gonna be fun."

Another song Marlo will sing is the familiar I Got You (I Feel Good).

"[I Got You (I Feel Good)] is kind of an ode to my older brother because I know he loves James Brown so much," Marlo says. "And it's just a representation of feeling really good. The world is all right when we're singing this song. You understand me? Everything is working out, for us when we do this song. It's one of his greatest hits and it's super fun."

Actor Alexander Ogburn is singing the title of the show, Papa's Got A Brand New Bag.

"I'm excited about portraying that in my own way," Ogburn says. "Pretty much what makes this show different for me is connecting to a little piece of history. Knowing his music growing up and actually performing it is, you know, just another full-circle moment. James Brown's voice is very unique. Of course, singing his music, we have to adapt as artists. So, I'm really excited to see where I can take it. I'm just ready for people to see the many sides of him, that maybe they did not know, and really excited for people to experience that."

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.