That’s Weird, Grandma: Behind the Monkey Music
Sitting in the Neo-Futurist Theater, waiting for "That’s Weird, Grandma: Behind the (Monkey) Music" to start, I was thinking about why I am so charmed by Barrel of Monkeys. This was my third time attending their performances for the purpose of review. (I attended both their recent holiday revue and winter matinee.) Chicago offers all manner of sophisticated theater for reviewers like me to pick apart, so why continue to patronize one whose execution can only be as refined as its writers, who in this case cannot be more than 11-years-old?
Than the music started, the performers entered singing and snapping their fingers, and for a fun-filled hour, I stopped thinking so damn hard.
Barrel of Monkeys "conducts creative writing workshops with 3rd through 5th grade students in under-served Chicago Public Schools." The students’ writings are then adapted into sketches and performed by the instructors, first at the schools, then again for the general public. Barrel of Monkeys has been doing this since 1997 and, for the first time, they are now offering a performance exclusively devoted to adaptations featuring original songs.
The afternoon began with "Wanting Meatloaf," written by a group of students from Dixon Elementary. A boy named Jackson, living in a mansion, wants nothing more that meatloaf "with nothing else." Disregarding his therapist, Jackson breaks out into the "meatloaf song," accompanied by wigged and feather boa-ed backup singers.
"Space Horses in Space" by Ruth B. gives us a friendship between two space horses, Midnight and Navy. The two get to be friends while eating a meal of fried hay.
"The Sound of Carma!!," by Kashmeire J, gives us a 10-year-old Kashmeire who was laughed at for "fallin on the skates." Thankfully, "carma" comes to the laughing girl who begins to have trouble of her own.
"Untitled (Elephants Come to my House)" is by Jeffrey H., who argues why elephants should not come to his house. Playing Wii, breaking beds, and "furting" are all very logical reasons used to support Jeffrey’s argument.
"Flower Argument" by Natalie gives us two flowers who debate the merits of being picked in near operatic form. One flower wants to be left alone to grow and smell good, while the other wants to go "every were."
"Not So Much Pressure" is by Lazaireus P. Here, we have a country/western singing Batman who "don’t want to save the world no more."
Giovanny M. wrote "Untitled (There was Nothing), taking us through a life filled with ups and downs. Giovanny remembers making and leaving friends, riding and losing his bike, and loving and losing pets and family.
"Stone Villian" by Tiara H. shows us a trio of friends: Kelly, Brian, and Mary. Together, they encounter an "evil villain named Stinky Stone."
Dante H., of Loyola Park After School Program, wrote my favorite piece of the afternoon, entitled "Women Rampage." Inspired by a picture that only featured men and food, Dante writes about the unfairness of excluding women. His women, kept away from a room filled with food, arm themselves with "rotten eggs, and our strong arms and legs," singing an anthem of equality that would have made Susan B. Anthony beam with pride.
"New Jersey" by Nia H. features Snooki, who sings the praises of the fun side of New Jersey and of the need for suntan lotion.
Nakevia M. wrote "(Untitled) The Zoo" about going to the zoo with her grandma and brother. Chaos ensues after her brother "kept messing with the lion."
"Grannies Lean Like a Cholo" was written by Stephaun B. A basketball team is made up of grannies, "most of them were short and most of them were tall."
"Untitled (Abe Lincoln)," by Deanna C., is about the great man Lincoln. A gospel-inspired choir helps sing Deanna’s praise of him.
Finally, "Dog was Dead" by Dinelle H. was performed. Inspired by both Devo and the Sprockets of "Saturday Night Live," we see a rival group of dogs and cats sing about the rivalry between a live cat and a dead dog. (Or was he?)
The original songs ran the gamut of genres, from country to hip-hop to gospel. The performers have vastly different vocal strengths, and directors Molly Brennan and Erick Deshaun Dorris (along with musical director Gwen Tulin) did a great job of matching the right voice to the right material. Additionally, between songs, the performers gave more insight into the work they do with the students, describing prompting them with pictures and memories, and teaching them about personal narrative and persuasive argument.
This inclusion kept the adult in me interested in Barrel of Monkeys and the importance of their work, while the guilelessness of the children’s material, enhanced by the creativity of the performers, kept the kid in me laughing and giggly for an entire hour.
"That’s Weird, Grandma: Behind the (Monkey) Music" runs through March 31 at the Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 N Ashland Ave in Chicago. For information or tickets, call 312-409-1954 or visit www.barrelofmonkeys.org.