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Hip-Hop Hooray

The sixth annual Hip-Hop Theater Festival chimes in on the State of the Union and offers Russell Simmons a rising talent for Def Poetry Jam. logo
Jerry Quickley in Live from the Front
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
Alumni of the six-year-old Hip-Hop Theater Festival are busting out all over the country. Sarah Jones, whose show Surface Transit debuted at the HHTF, just won a Tony Award for the Broadway production of Bridge & Tunnel. Will Power's The Seven, first seen at the festival, was a big hit at New York Theater Workshop last season, snagging two Lucille Lortel Awards. And two of playwright Chadwick Boseman's HHTF shows have played outside New York: Deep Azure moved to the Congo Square Theater Company in Chicago, while Hieroglyphic Graffiti was picked up by the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina.

The next participant who might make it big is radio show correspondent Jerry Quickley; his piece Live From the Front headlines this year's festival, which runs June 20-24 at various venues. The 2006 HTTF features almost 20 events, including a master class in break dancing, talk backs with various artists, a reading series, and opening night and wrap parties.

Quickley's experiences reporting from Iraq for Pacifica Radio and KPSK during the six days before "Shock & Awe" are the basis of his new show. The writer-performer notes that working for alternative radio allowed him to cover stories that he would not have been able to report if he had been "embedded." For example, his program drew attention to the fact that depleted uranium from the first Iraq War had ruined one of the local hospitals and caused a health crisis. Another story debunked a media report about illegal missiles discovered in the Al-Taji military compound north of Baghdad. But most of his reports focused on the day-to-day lives of Iraqis, including anecdotes about doctors, bakers, and even a barber who did not know what to do with his Afro.

"What were the pedestrian, workaday lives?" asks Quickley. "There was a reason, a very insidious reason, why their voices were absent from U.S. coverage." His show also deals with his being kicked out of the country by the Baathist government, witnessing a violent run-in with the Muhabarat (the Iraqi secret police), and surviving the dangerous road out of the country. After Live from the Front closes at the HHTF, Quickley will tour the show to Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, and he plans to take up residencies at Dartmouth and Stanford University.

Ben Snyder, whose play In Case You Forget scored a success at the 2001 Festival, returns with a trio of one-acts, Rock, Paper, Scissors. It's not about the children's game but, instead, the grueling and often demeaning jobs that many city kids are forced to take: "Rock" refers to the M&Ms that people hawk on the subway and "paper" to the distribution of free dailies outside of Penn Station, while "scissors" is slang for guerrilla marketing. The play delves into how the U.S. Army teams up with major players in the hip-hop industry to try to enlist young people in depressed urban areas. Says Snyder, "They have a whole hip-hop marketing ad campaign that includes driving Hummers, playing hip-hop music, holding freestyle contests, and giving away video games at historically black colleges."

Although Live from the Front includes some music and poetry, Rock, Paper, Scissors does not use any of the four elements of hip-hop -- MC-ing, DJ-ing, graffiti, or breakdancing -- to tell its story. So what makes it a hip-hop piece? "The language, the characters, the humor, and the world of the play are for what people call the 'Hip-Hop Generation," says Snyder. Kamilah Forbes, HHTF's co-producer, agrees that the essence of hip-hop theater is "not quantifiable, but we can't be exclusionary when defining culture." Forbes, who performed her solo show Rhyme Deferred as part of the first festival, remarks that many more people now know about HHTF but notes that growing pains come with increased popularity: "'Mo' money, mo' problems,' as Biggie would say."

This year, the festival teamed up with Bolt Media -- an online community for networking, blogging, and file sharing -- and to present a contest that gave poets, monologists, and theater-based performers the chance to be part of the festival and audition for Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam. The winner is Kokayi, a D.C.-based hip-hop artist. Like many of the shows at the festival, his winning song "Act Out" has strong political content, referencing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the torture at Abu Ghraib. "I feel a certain way about things and choose to share my feelings and opinions in my music," he says. That philosophy suits Forbes, who was one of the contest's judges, just fine. "He was a really strong performer," she says, "and thematically, what was interesting was that [his song] made sense with the rest of the festival."

Although he entered the contest on a whim while "trolling the 'net," Kokayi isn't a novice who happened to hit the jackpot; he was involved in more than seven recordings with the band Metrics; formed his own hip-hop group, Opus Akoben, with which he's performed for the last 10 years; and was a founding member of the Freestyle Union, an organization of MCs dedicated to perfecting the practice of freestyle in the D.C. area. His community-based, socially involved work ethic appeals to HHTF executive director Clyde Valentin, who says of Kokayi, "He's also an amazing writer."

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