Revenge of a King

By Ryner, Bradley D. | Shakespeare Bulletin, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Revenge of a King


Ryner, Bradley D., Shakespeare Bulletin


Revenge of a King

Presented by the Black Theatre Troupe and Blackpoet Ventures at the Playhouse on the Park, Phoenix, Arizona. January 8-25, 2009. Conceived by Herb Newsome. Music by Derrick Walker. Additional music and lyrics by Jason Yee, Steve Broadnax, Leia Scott and David Mobley. Directed and choreographed by Steve Broadnax. Music directed by Jason Yee. Set by Jeff Lemire. Lighting by Michael J. Eddy. Costumes by Mario Garcia. Sound by David Temby. Scenic art by Ernie Perazza and the staff of Just Blaze. With David Tinsley (Hamilton King), Jade Alexis Johnson (Aft Parker), Atllas (Ray, Charles King), Litisha Chappell (Dominique), Lavelle Claiborne (Jean Claude Rameau), Divine (Lady D), Reggie Powell (Lee Parker), Leia Scott (Gertrude), Roosevelt Watts Jr. (Mr. Parker), Hersley Alexander (Bernard), Ricky Araiza (Francisco), Jason Yee (DJ Son), and others.

Herb Newsome's Revenge of a King is most easily described as a hiphop musical adaptation of Hamlet. However, the term "musical" does not fully capture the variety of Hip-Hop Theatre, a genre that Steve Broadnax identifies in his program note with "the use of graffiti art, deejaying, emceeing or spoken word and dance." Observing the power of hip-hop to "influence lifestyles, fashion, politics, religion, and theory," Broadnax referred to the production as a "call out to the Hip-Hop generation to take responsibility for its voice." As the Black Theatre Troupe's production demonstrated, though, the "voice" of the hip-hop generation is really a multiplicity of different voices. Indeed, the production was successful precisely because it was truly collaborative: starting from a script that Newsome first wrote in 2004 and subsequently revised, cast members contributed original poetry, music, and lyrics, and Newsome further revised the script during the rehearsal process. The result was both a celebration and a critical examination of the various art forms that constitute hip-hop culture.

Revenge of a King's Hamlet character was Hamilton King, a college-aged youth living on Denmark Avenue. In a quick, tense scene that started the play's action, Hamilton's father was murdered by Jean Claude Rameau while trying to stop Jean Claude's gang from raping a young girl. Jean Claude quickly married Hamilton's mother, Gertrude. In addition to the revenge plot, the play gave equal weight to Hamilton's conflicted relationship with sixteen-year-old Aft Parker, who had aborted their unplanned child without consulting him. In the first act, the characters were busy in preparation for a block party, which would feature dances choreographed by Aft and a freestyle MC battle (an improvisational rap competition). The second act opened with Hamilton asking his friend Ray to incorporate verses accusing Jean Claude of murder into the MC battle. This emphasis on the block party set up the expectation (familiar from mainstream hip-hop movies such as 8 Mile [2002], Drumline [2002], and Step Up [2006]) that the narrative would culminate in a virtuoso competitive performance. Instead, Jean Claude fled the MC battle, and the remaining scenes resembled their analogues in Hamlet much more closely than those of the first act. As a result, the parallels to Shakespeare felt more forced in these scenes. Hamilton mistakenly stabbed Afi's father, prompting Afi's suicide and her brother Lee's quest for revenge. In the climactic confrontation, Lee shot Hamilton through Gertrude, who was trying to break up the fight. The wounded Hamilton then stabbed Lee and shot Jean Claude.

Some aspects of the plot were left vague. For example, the set, costumes, and references to pop culture in the dialogue sometimes suggested New York in the 1980s and sometimes suggested a present-day metropolis. Also, Jean Claude was identified as a Councilman, but the relationship between his political career and his role as a gang leader was unclear, as was his relationship with Hamilton's father. Ultimately, though, such questions were beside the point as the pleasure of watching Revenge of a King did not derive primarily from its mimetic realism but from its self-reflexive showcasing of hip-hop art forms. …

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