- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

When Tommy the Clown bounded on stage Saturday at Strathmore Music Center he was greeted by roars from the crowd that half-filled the cavernous space. With his large frame enhanced by a glittering clown suit and an orange, green and blue bubble of a wig that looked made of spun sugar bobbing on his head, Tommy, aka Thomas Johnson, rallied young and old with his ebullient, larger-than-life personality.

“You feel good today?” he shouted, thrusting his microphone at the audience for their response. “Yeah,” they shouted back. As he romped around the stage he wove a spell that was part Salvation Army-inspirational, part Oprah-like, beginning with his own story of coming off a five-year jail term for drug dealing and vowing to change his life.

“My Lord saved me, Jesus saved me,” he called out, to cheers.

Then he introduced the 10 members of his group of Hip Hop Clowns: boys and a few girls ranging in age from 5 — his son, “Lil Tommy” — to 22. One by one they came on, each doing a short solo full of the spasmodic, pelvis gyrating, high energy hip-hop moves the group calls “krumping.”

As each finished, Tommy the Clown — frozen in an arresting pose — delivered a brief bio of a life that seemed headed nowhere. One had been born in jail to a mother who was a drug addict, another teenager shot at someone — and luckily missed.

By a show of hands Tommy found that most of the audience was there on Saturday because they’d seen the movie “Rize,” released a year ago. Tommy the Clown was a star of that show, but his live performance here was infinitely more real and appealing. The film was made by a fashion photographer, slickly produced, and glamorized by professional dancers.

At Strathmore his own crop of young appealing teenagers and an enthusiastic, upbeat message were winners.

The program was fast-paced. In one interlude the Hip Hop Clowns brought young members of the audience onstage and entertained them with their antics. Later, the interactive show invited wannabe hip-hoppers to come up and show their stuff as well. They almost ricocheted off the walls.

As a grand finale, the group staged a Tommy invention — the Battle Zone. Fearing that the progress he’d made with the short-fused, at-risk Los Angeles kids might explode, Tommy found a new way to challenge their pent-up feelings — acting them out in a staged Battle Zone where the weapons of choice were how fast and sharp and imaginative they could be in their hip-hop moves.

One by one a dancer from each team strode center stage, whipped off a cascade of stomps, spins, shaking hips and slashing leaps to challenge the others to best him (or her). The audience was the referee, Tommy judged the volume of applause, and there were winners and losers and hugs all around.

The two shows at Strathmore marked the beginning of a new adventure for Tommy the Clown and his Hip Hop Clowns — a tour that takes them to cities across the country and winds up with appearances in Germany and New Zealand next February.

But the group hasn’t given up its day job, the one that started it all — playing clowns at parties around Los Angeles, their home base. Before “Rize” and all the media attention, that’s what brought them together in the first place.

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MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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