Those ancestors appear in the form of extraordinary tap dancers, including Dormeshia and Glover. And they keep reappearing throughout the show to remind Joey of his authentic self. This Joey, played by Ephraim Sykes, has a soul, and that soul expresses itself in the deeply rooted sound of Savion Glover’s tap dancing.
The Griots are “a connection to something very old,” Beaty said. “The artists who have danced, sang and acted this path before. I have sat with many of them: Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte. Ruby Dee told me, ‘We have always had to dance with a gun at our feet, but still we must dance.’”
Glover, too, has always been an artist attuned to his ancestors, especially the veteran tap dancers who mentored him when he was a child. His solo shows can feel like séances, his jazz improvisations quoting those dead teachers and summoning their spirits. “Those Griots could be Jimmy Slyde, Lon Chaney, Chuck Green and Buster Brown,” he said, listing four hoofer-mentors he celebrated in the 1996 Broadway musical “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk,” for which he won a Tony Award for choreography.
“Wherever I am, they will be,” he added. “They walk with me.”
And not just in the Griot sections. At a recent rehearsal of one of Joey’s nightclub numbers, Glover stressed that he was stealing a rhythm from Henry LeTang, who choreographed “Black and Blue,” the 1989 Broadway show in which a teenage Glover shared the stage with Slyde, Chaney and other tap masters.
“I appreciate the platform for dance to be part of the storytelling,” Glover said. “But if I have a side agenda, it would be to remind people of the contribution of those old cats.”
The first Joey, in 1940, was a then-little-known Gene Kelly, who vaulted from the part into Hollywood fame. Frank Sinatra played Joey for the sanitized 1957 film. Revivals at City Center in the 1960s starred Bob Fosse, years before he directed shows like “Chicago” that made Joey’s sleaze into a dominant style.