A Q Brothers Christmas Carol

Q Brothers send Dickens spinning with a rap adaptation.

JQ (center) as Lil' Tim joined by Jackson Doran as Mrs. Cratchit and Postell Pringle as Martha Cratchit in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's A Q Brothers' Christmas Carol.
JQ (center) as Lil’ Tim joined by Jackson Doran as Mrs. Cratchit and Postell Pringle as Martha Cratchit in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s A Q Brothers' Christmas Carol.
(© Michael Brosilow)

With humor and intelligence sharp enough to slice silk, the Chicago-bred Q Brothers (Jeffery Allen Qaiyum, aka JQ, and Gregory J. Qaiyum, aka GQ) exploded (in the best possible way) onto the Chicago theater scene in 2001 with The Bombitty of Errors, their inventive and ingenious rap adaptation of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. The piece was Mensa-level smart, faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare's text, and so funny it often left you gasping for breath. It was also marvelously accessible to youngsters who were inclined to view Shakespeare as algebra onstage and oldsters who just don't get kids and their crazy rap music.

This year, the Q ensemble (GQ and JQ, with Jackson Doran and Postell Pringle, and turntablist extraordinaire DJ Super Nova) is premiering its rap version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Directed by GQ and JQ and penned by the collaborative cast, the show is wordsmithery that feels like alchemy, a tightly paced, 75-minute piece that mirrors its source material and then filters it through a dazzling contemporary prism of rhythm and rhyme. And for all its irreverence – and there is plenty of that – the spirit of Dickens shines through with the wattage of the star of Bethlehem or, if you prefer, a pagan Yule log burning bright.

The plot is at once eminently familiar and gloriously unexpected as the frenetically nimble cast morphs in and out of more than a dozen different roles. Ebenezer (GQ, the only cast member to play one role), poor Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Marley, and the other ghosts all present and accounted for, although not as the clichéd holiday chestnuts that all too often populate many a Christmas Carol production. Marley (JQ) has been sentenced to an afterlife performing reggae, the music he most loathed in life. He is accompanied – but of course – by a duo of backup wailers. Scrooge ("Neezy" as he's called) comes with a catchphrase that in a just world would be as iconic as "Bah, humbug!"

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Pringle) is an old-school rapper, serving up MC Hammer realness as he propels Scrooge through his life's watershed moments. Scrooge's former fiancée, Belle (JQ again), becomes a math nerd colleague in the weave and wig shop where Scrooge begins his career. His old bud Dick Wilkins (Doran) becomes a dyed-in-the-wool brah, chugalugging his way through college and mourning the loss of his best bromance as Scrooge becomes increasingly obsessed with money and less and less inclined toward friendship.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (JQ) takes us to the Cratchit home, where the impoverished, loving family is besieged by a litany of healthcare bills. (L'il Tim isn't just lame. He's also got rabies, scurvy, dyslexia, and any number of other medical issues.) Finally there's that scary Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, evoked in a kinetic dance by JQ, Doran, and Pringle. That this specter reads as both ultra-menacing and laugh-out-loud funny is a testimony to the ensemble's writing and performance skills.

Crucial to both tone and storytelling is the work of DJ Super Nova, decked out in a hoodie adorned with Christmas lights and working turntable magic from a crow's nest perched above the stage.

When it comes to Christmas shows, the line between heartwarming and cloyingly cheesy often becomes blurry at best. The Q Brothers Christmas Carol balances deftly on that tricky high wire. Dickens purists will not be disappointed. And neither will those whose patience with poetry begins and ends with hip-hop chart-toppers.

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A Q Brothers Christmas Carol

Closed: December 28, 2014