Hip-Hop Homer

By Williams, John | American Theatre, May-June 1996 | Go to article overview

Hip-Hop Homer


Williams, John, American Theatre


Ifa Bayeza's hip-hop political satire Homer G. and the Rhapsodies in the Fall of Detroit begins with a provocative quotation about the prototypical poet of ancient Greece from the Autobiography of Malcolm X:

In a debate about whether or not Homer had ever existed, I threw into their white faces the theory that "Homer" only symbolized how white Europeans kidnapped black Africans, then blinded them so they could never get back to their own people. (Homer, Omar and the Moor, you see, are related terms: it's like saying Peter, Pedro and Petra, all of which mean "rock.") These blinded Moors, the Europeans taught to sing about the Europeans' glorious accomplishments. "Aesop" was really only the Greek name for an Ethiopian.

Bayeza's play follows the iconoclastic Malcolm X's lead by turning the Homeric epic of the Iliad and the Odyssey upside-down and inside-out. A musical extravaganza running more than two hours, it recently debuted at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco upon the occasion of the theatre's 15th anniversary, following an international developmental odyssey that touched down at Crossroads Theatre of New Jersey's Genesis Festival of Voices, the Taking Shape festival of San Francisco's Brava for Women in the Arts, and the Sorbonne in Paris, where it was first performed as a work-in-progress.

Homer G., described by the playwright as an "experimental, serial work," was originally conceived as a radio play about the musings of a college basketball player who becomes a deejay on the school radio station after being sidelined by the N.C.A.A. As postmodern as anything written by Adrienne Kennedy and as wry with acerbic humor as anything by novelist-turned-playwright Ishmael Reed, Homer G. is a hybrid of African-American storytelling and traditional European forms. The Hansberry production dramatized two of the play's movements, or episodes - The Judgment of Paris and The Apple of Cora Dix - and plans for a sequel are underway.

Your name carries your fate

Born Wanda Celeste Williams, Ifa Bayeza took her name (pronounced E-FA BUY-YEA-SA) in her junior year in college. A mixture of Yoruba and Zulu, it means a cross between "one with powers of divination" and "a prophet approaches." "It's an African notion," she explains. "Your name carries your fate with it."

The daughter of a surgeon and a social worker, Bayeza grew up in the 1960s in a predominantly black section of St. Louis. Her stage career was launched when she assisted her older sister, Ntozake Shange, on the original production of Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, serving as assistant director, dramaturg and set designer. Since then, she has worked as a writer, producer and director in film, television and theatre. An award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays allowed her to mount a full-length production of Homer G.

The play takes place somewhere between B.C. and A.D., now and then, in both Paris - metaphorically the "city of love" - and the crumbling city of Detroit, the once-proud home of the Motown sound and the big car industry, perhaps a metaphor for the "fall of civilization. …

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