Identity and the Word: A New Anthology Stages a Conversation between Hip-Hop Culture and the World at Large

By Alick, Claudia | American Theatre, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Identity and the Word: A New Anthology Stages a Conversation between Hip-Hop Culture and the World at Large


Alick, Claudia, American Theatre


SAY WORD! VOICES FROM HIP HOP THEATER

An anthology edited and with an introduction by Daniel Banks.

University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2011.

400 pp., $40 paper.

BY DESIGN, HIP-HOP DEFIES DEFINITION. IT IS a culture of resistance and reclamation. It is a culture that recognizes the inevitability of commercialization--and works with and against it subversively. Folks in hip-hop culture use slang, specific jargon and metaphors for an idea and then shorten it to a potent signifier. Know what I'm sayin'? Word? We play with language and challenge assumptions. It's necessary in a culture so hot that every new innovation is instantly corn modified, repackaged and sold back to us.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A lack of physical resources forces the aesthetic to embrace social capital, the entertainment that comes straight from the body, mouth and brain. Shakespeare had crazy, complicated language because he didn't have CGI. Poetry was his special effect. Hip-hop evokes landscapes, history and new futures with overlapping words, sampled and original music, multimedia components and dance. This mixing and remixing is a vital part of the culture.

All these features of the form combine to make hip-hop an ideal aesthetic for theatre. But that recipe is extremely difficult to capture in prose. Say Word! Voices from Hip Hop Theater embraces this challenge and addresses it in some smart ways.

The book's editor, Daniel Banks, treats the project like a DJ sampling from various sources. This establishes a vital authenticity. Banks created and directed the Hip Hop Theatre Initiative, which emphasizes youth empowerment and leadership, and presents workshops on hip-hop performance around the world. Despite his extensive credentials, Banks still questions his own place in the hip-hop scene and his cultural competency as an interpreter of it. This does several things: It humanizes an intimidatingly intelligent voice, establishes a note of authority without seeming like he's fronting, and allows us to let go of the question of our own authenticity and simply embrace the work--nine plays in all--under discussion.

Banks begins his introduction with an Eduoard Glissant quote: "To declare one's own identity is to write the world into existence." The academic frame seems right for Banks's heavy emphasis on interculturality, the djeli (or griot) and ritual. He samples equally from journalists, historians, academics, philosophers and hip-hop artists, punctuating the hook with several glossary sections of hip-hop terminology. In a genre built on street cred, this provides some hard-core book cred, and promotes the anthology's likelihood of being taught in classroom settings.

This collection aspires to be both foundational and definitive, and at the same time acknowledges that in terms of hip-hop, this is an impossible task. The plays are grouped into categories that are as arbitrary as they are useful, from full-length performances created from spoken-word roots to shows that emphasize the role of storyteller as "communal history keeper and cultural critic." The choice of plays actually subverts Banks's ways of organizing them and underscores the wide-ranging themes and tropes this genre explores.

Much of this work could be described as social-justice theatre. Subjects like anorexia, mental health, real-life events of police violence, and the pathologizing of marginalized communities are explored in Rha Goddess's solo show Low, Rickerby Hinds's Dreamscape and Chadwick Boseman's Deep Azure. …

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