Review: Purple Onyx Productions Celebrates Prince’s Purple Rain at Funky 40

Next week is the 40th anniversary of the date that Prince's album, Purple Rain, hit the airwaves; the film appeared in movie theaters a month later. I did not have the asymmetrical hair or Georgian attire but I did blast any of the songs when they came on the radio. Prince Rogers Nelson was a visionary artist who got his first #1 hit from his fourth album. On Saturday, June 22, Purple Onyx Productions paid tribute to the music and the artist Prince with Take Me With U: A Funky 40th Purple Rain Anniversary Experience.

Purple Onyx Productions is the brainchild of Chris Rooney, who conceived and produced The Experience with performers from the Aloft Aerial Arts and Chicago Aerial School in Logan Square founded by Shayna Swanson. It was a blast and a fitting tribute to an artist who stretched the boundaries of sexuality, gender, and identity.

The emcee for the evening was radio-TV host Jeanne Sparrow dressed in a knockout purple embossed creation with shiny black boot leggings. Sparrow was fun and energized the crowd to let their freak flag fly. Aloft Chicago Circus Arts and Chicago Aerial School is in a repurposed church at 3324 W. Wrightwood. Prince's music had a deeply spiritual undercurrent and sometimes it was front and center. Watching the talented performers fly, twirl, and dramatically drop in front of century-old stained glass raised the spirit vibe higher.

Aerial dance and pole dancing take an incredible amount of strength and focus. The performers are enviably fit and confident. Almost every performance was at least 20 feet in the air or whizzing around like an amusement park ride. Silks, straps, lyra, trapeze, and the flying pole were performed with sizzle. Some standout performances had the audience stomping their feet and whooping it up. Kaya Sky is performed on the floating pole to "The Beautiful Ones." Sky channeled the emotional and fierce lyrics of the song with her body and facial expressions.

Cristal Sabbah. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Devorar and Hora Babylon performed an aerial pas de deux on the contraption known as The Cube. Watching them intertwine, hang by a foot, by a partner's wrist, and flip had me holding my breath. They were a fun duo dressed in Power Rangers-styled jumpsuits. Purple Onyx founder Chris Rooney performed "Baby. I'm a Star" on the straps showing strength and poise worthy of the founder. As an aerial arts newbie, it turned my head to see Rooney in a Zen white linen ensemble one minute and spinning and swooping in the next.

Cristal Sabbah was a pretty good doppelganger of Prince to "When Doves Cry." The costume was on point and Stenson had the moves and facial expressions down to the finger lick. The final performer was Jason Span for "Purple Rain" on the lira aka the hoop. Span's athleticism is equal to his graceful and sinuous moves. The muscle control to balance just a foot or the back of the neck on a hoop feels like a Sisyphean task, but Span and all the performers are expertly trained and even their stance at rest exudes energy.

Sparrow's narration encouraged everyone watching to be fearless and authentic. Sparrow holds a degree in psychology and is an inspirational speaker when not on television or the radio. The audience was dressed in many hues of purple with sparkly dresses, velvet jackets, and vintage concert t-shirts. They got the memo to come ready to party. I wore the only purple item I own, which fell somewhere between '70s and '80s hippie dork. However, I know the words to every song on "Purple Rain," so run tell that, youngster.

DJ Dhe-Di was the Master of Sounds providing music from other Prince albums and "The Bird" from Morris Day and the Time in the film but not on the Prince album. People happily squawked, flapped their arms, and did that crazy penguin dance. The acoustics in the church structure drowned out some of the lyrics but the volume was great to celebrate the Purple One.

A celebration of Prince is about authenticity and putting all of your art on canvas—that can be sheet music, words on a page, or a spinning lira. Take Me With U: A Funky 40th Purple Rain Anniversary Experience played on June 22 and 23 at Aloft Circus Arts, 3325 W. Wrightwood Ave. in Logan Square. It is a fun space and they offer classes. Check out https://www.aloftloft.com/ to get your mojo working.

Chris Rooney's Purple Onyx Productions was founded as a performing arts company centered on the movement of melanated bodies. BIPOC performers don't get a lot of visibility in the circus arts and Rooney dedicates his time to Black people giving their narrative on the Black body. For more information, follow him on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/purpleonyxproductions/.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.