For dramatic fodder, you can't do much better than a backstage rivalry.
Pitting the fierce and fragile egos of artists against one another is an indispensable tool of the playwright's trade. And with good reason: The potential for one character to tear another apart -- along with the ever-present threat of outright camp -- rarely fails to keep us engrossed in the action.
We've been granted plenty of glimpses into the damaged, back-stabbing characters that lurk behind the curtain (Noel Coward's "Star Quality," Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan"), behind the camera ("All About Eve"), even behind the pompoms of competitive cheerleading ("Bring It On").
But the body of work about backstage rivalries in the world of dance, step and drill competitions remains relatively slim. That underrepresented genre just got a welcome addition on Sunday, when "Let's Get It In," written and co-directed by Buffalo playwright Phil Davis and produced by his Alemaedae Theater Productions, debuted on the stage of the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. Davis and local theater veteran Willie Judson co-directed.
With elements of the 2007 dance film "Stomp the Yard," the 2000 cheerleading film "Bring It On" and more than a dash of Tyler Perry-brand humor and moral rectitude, Davis' play hit all the chords of an archetypal backstage battle of wills -- and had a heck of a lot of fun doing it.
The play opens with a competition of African-American step and dance teams at a local college. (Step is a form of competitive dance popular in black fraternities in which the body becomes a kind of percussion instrument.) A team led by the popular Taj (Cierra Monroe) faces off against another team, led by the brash and vindictive Shay (Tey'ana Walker). When Taj's team wins the competition despite performing poorly, Shay launches on a mission to destroy Taj's life and the dance team she leads.
What ensues is a fierce rivalry played out across two breathless hours, punctuated by phenomenal performances from several gifted local dance and step teams. This show was a marriage of two prime interests for Davis, who, with brother and collaborator James Clemons, has produced the local "Stomp the Yard" step and dance competition since 2008.
Davis' dialogue is credible in spots and hackneyed in others ("I'm going to give her a real reason to hate me, when I beat the hell out of her!" Taj says about Shay), while the story arc is a boilerplate tale of betrayal and resolution. The acting ranged from forced to fully credible, with particularly strong performances from Chris Titus (as Marcus, Shay's love interest) and Jamil Crews (Q) and great dancing and step performances all around.
Whatever the drawbacks of the script and the company, Alemaedae deserves major credit for bringing an immensely entertaining production about underexposed subject matter to the stage. "Let's Get It In" goes to show that good community theater can sometimes get to its goal without polished performances or Aaron Sorkin-level writing.
With the right balance between purity of intent and joy of execution -- a balance this show often achieves -- the amateur can be transcendent.
"Let's Get It In"
3 stars (out of 4)
Drama written by Phil Davis; co-directed by Davis and Willie Judson.
Presented by Alemaedae Theater Productions on Sunday in the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts.