Blowin Up the Set

By Bass, Holly | American Theatre, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Blowin Up the Set


Bass, Holly, American Theatre


Thumping beats reverberate through the air. Atmospheric red light suffuses the space. An audience of young people, many bedecked with braids and dreadlocks, shout affirmations, laugh exuberantly and join in chorus with the performers onstage. One almost expects a booming voice to call out, "Throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care!" But this isn't a rap concert or dimly lit underground club. It's a presentation of hip-hop theatre at the venerable National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C.

This year's week-long gathering in early August, headquartered at the North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre, marked the first time that the emerging form of hip-hop theatre has been included as a specific category at the biennial festival, the largest gathering of African-American theatre professionals in the U.S. With four very different productions showing off hip-hop's tremendous theatrical potential, it was a new genre that the event's estimated 40,000 attendees couldn't ignore. From Washington, D.C., came two fine examples: The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown, directed by Jennifer L. Nelson of the African Continuum Theatre Company (ACTCO), and Rhyme Deferred, directed by Kamilah Forbes of the recently created Hip Hop Theater Junction. Ernie McClintock, director of Jazz Actors Theatre of Richmond, Va., brought a seven-man ensemble piece called Ndangered. And the San Francisco performance art company Cultural Odyssey presented solo artist Will Power in The Gathering, directed by Rhodessa Jones.

Like hip-hop music and culture, hip-hop theatre is not a genre that sprang up overnight. The music itself has been around for over 20 years and has always contained a strong theatrical element. The Broadway hit Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, with its rhyme-heavy libretto penned by "hip-hop poet" Reg E. Gaines, introduced the hip-hop aesthetic to a vast mainstream audience in the early '90s. Playwrights and poets on both coasts and abroad have begun to create their own hip-hop works, from playwright Robert Alexander's 1994 gangsta rap play Preface to the Alien Garden, mounted last season at Providence, R.I.'s Trinity Repertory Company, to London performance artist Jonzi D's 1995 piece Lyrikal Fearta, which masterfully combined breakdance, a capella rap and theatrical conventions.

"What exactly is this hip-hop theatre thing?" many attendees at the NBTF mused aloud. Like the music, it means different things to different people. Alexander defines it as theatre informed by the sensibilities of rap music, just as August Wilson's plays are informed by the blues, or Ntozake Shange's work is informed by jazz.

"For something to be truly a hip-hop theatre piece it has to contain certain elements of schizophrenia and rebellion, creativity and destruction," Alexander elaborates. "There has to be a marriage between heaven and hell, light and dark, revolution and complacency and all of our various contradictions, whether it's a performance piece or a traditional play with dialogue."

What began in Bronx basements and block parties has evolved into a rich subculture with its own rituals and traditions. For many followers, hip-hop has an almost religious significance. The call-and-response interaction between an onstage emcee and the audience echoes the connection between preacher and congregation in black churches. "Battling," the rhymed verbal sparring that can take place between emcees (and also between dancers, in the form of virtuoso movement, or even disc jockeys, vying with musical tiffs) allows individual artists to establish prominence. Improvisation, in the form of unrehearsed "freestyle" rhymes, recalls jazz and blues forms. The four cornerstones of the culture are emcee-ing (i.e., rapping, rhyming), deejay-ing, graffiti art and breakdancing. And the sacred trinity of hip-hop remains two turntables and a microphone.

The independently produced Rhyme Deferred represents all of hip-hop's many facets within an almost classical structure. …

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