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Hip-Hop Takes the Stage

Phil Hopkins talks with the movers and shapers of the fourth annual New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival. logo
Storm in "Solo for Two" (Photo © Dirk Korell)
What is hip-hop theater? The urban culture that gave rise to rap music, b-boy/breakdancing, and graffiti art has by now influenced mainstream film, fashion, rock music, and spoken-word/slam poetry. Yet on the application to submit work to the fourth annual New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival, the artists themselves are asked to define what makes theirs a hip-hop theater piece.

Kamilah Forbes, co-producer of the festival and a founder of D.C.-based performance troupe Hip-Hop Theater Junction, cites "contemporary stories told in the vocabulary of hip-hop" as among those fitting the bill. But she emphasizes the diversity of offerings, as does festival co-producer Clyde Valentin. "Everyone has a different definition of how hip-hop applies to theater," says Valentin, who published the hip-hop-culture-focused Stress Magazine before becoming involved as a producer with some of the genre's bigger names.

According to Valentin, "Every show doesn't necessarily have to include the four basic elements of hip-hop: a DJ, graffiti-based visual art, breakdancing, and an MC or rapper." But he concurs with Forbes about the importance of "the language on stage, the story, and the vibe," adding that "relevance to today's world, urban or otherwise, is a major part" of the hip-hop theater experience. Among the many artists participating this year are Storm, Debbie Young, Hanifah Walidah, Bamuthi, Pattydukes, and Will Power.

Danny Hoch -- a festival co-founder and the acclaimed creator of Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop, the 1998 multi-character solo piece he performed to packed houses on a national tour -- emphasizes that hip-hop provides a forum for the disenfranchised and voices of dissent. But audiences who, upon hearing that description, might anticipate angry political rants from the festival's artists will be surprised by the nuances, the diverse characterizations, and the emotional modulations contained in Hoch's and other performers' work: Hoch's characters include a Puerto Rican boy in physical therapy, a person with AIDS whose insistence on an organic diet is strident and moving, and a light-skinned street vendor whose racial origins confuses others. All of these creations are unmistakably human.

However it is defined, hip-hop's explosion onstage in the last few years has been remarkable. In the late '90s, the principal producers and directors of this year's festival were developing their art independently. Forbes toured with Hip Hop Theater Junction performing work that she co-created. Around the same time, Hoch premiered Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop at P.S. 122. Shortly thereafter, Valentin -- who had formed a theater group named La Raza in college -- ran into Hoch at a party and the two joined forces to promote Hoch's work and talk about next steps.

In collaboration with Forbes and Sarah Jones, whose highly lauded one-woman show Surface Transit had begun to build audiences when it closed at The American Place Theater in 1999, they launched The First NYC Hip-Hop Theater Festival in 2000; Jones was the headliner. Since that time, Hoch has become a cornerstone of the movement as has Jones, offering her own diverse array of characters. Works by Forbes and her troupe, as well as those of beatbox-opera creator Soulati and of Philadelphia-based choreographer Rennie Harris, have also begun to garner widespread attention and praise. Harris has toured internationally; his most recent work, a contemplative piece called Facing Mekka, had its New York premiere in May at the Joyce Theater, where his dance/spoken-word/DJ compositions have brought audiences to their feet in recent years. Harris's Puremovement troupe will not perform in this festival, but alum Sabela offers his kinetic moves in one of the festival's most-anticipated shows.

To those who might question whether this form of expression can truly be defined as theater, Hoch responds that it is necessarily rooted in dramatic qualities. "You can't just put rap onstage -- you need to make theater," he says. "It's older than the Greeks and Romans. When people write about hip-hop theater as some avant-garde thing, I think they're wrong. Whatever speaks to a culture dramatically -- whether it's 2000 B.C. or 2000 A.D. -- that's theater." Hoch is also a strong believer in the importance of dramaturgical and directorial insight, which he has developed while studying theater in school and working with other directors.

Debbie Young (Photo © babatunde)
While the work may be rooted in tradition, many have remarked that hip-hop on stage expands the boundaries of theater more fearlessly than most other theatrical genres. "Hip-hop is such an inclusive culture," Forbes explains. "Barriers are not what it's about. Racial and gender barriers, styles of performance are beside the point. To us, it's all theater -- movement, poetry, voice." Despite all of this boundary breaking, hip-hop has been criticized for intolerance regarding homosexuality. Forbes acknowledges this and points out that, this year, the issue is addressed head-on by spoken-word artist Hanifa's Black Folks' Guide to Black Folks, which tells of her life as a female MC (known as Sha-Key) who loves women.

As the hip-hop movement has gained momentum, the mainstream has inevitably -- though cautiously -- acknowledged it. Parts of the revolution have been televised, from dance and spoken-word segments to a film of Hoch's performances. But controversy persists. A recent radio broadcast of a thoughtful Sarah Jones poem, "Your Revolution," led to an FCC sanction -- even though the piece is less explicit than the lyrics of rock songs that are three decades old.

After the cable television series Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam scored on HBO with its mix of hip-hop influenced talents from the nation's slam-poetry cafés, Simmons opened a stage version on Broadway to largely positive notices. The show had a short run, but Forbes, Hoch and company have learned that the audiences are there, whether or not Broadway ends up being the place for them.

"A Broadway ticket price is about real estate values, not art," says Hoch. "But there's a mistaken belief that the younger generation doesn't care about live performance, that media-dominated pop culture speaks for them. And that's wrong. In the audience for our shows, you'll see a hunger for something more substantial." Catering to more conventional theater audiences, shows like The Bombitty of Errors succeed by offering a light hip-hop tweak to Shakespeare's comedy, while The Fourth Annual NYC Hip-Hop Theater Festival feeds its flock by staying loyal to the roots of the culture; it offers original work that draws on other sources but is not beholden to them, in gripping, raw, immediate presentations.

That's not to say these artists aren't polished. The level of craft in the work of Jones, Will Power, turntablists like DJ Raw B, and dancer Sabela amazes many first time viewers and inspires the growing audiences. "We want our artists to take off and succeed on as wide a scale as is possible for them," says Forbes.

Hoch adds, "We're hoping the powers that be in the theater industry -- including non-profits -- start putting money where their mouths are and commission these artists to develop and present their work. There's so much talk about the future of theater, the audiences of tomorrow; but you can see what those theaters put onstage and who it draws in the audience." Hoch issues his most direct challenge to current theater programming this way; "When you go to our shows, you just have to look around to realize that when you present material that's relevant, this generation will come out." With regard to the festival's contribution to developing new work, Valentin envisions a continuing role; "What we plan to do is continue to present emerging work -- the new stuff, and that's what's beautiful -- you can test things, you can put it in front of a festival audience, and see what makes that connection." Starting June 3, The Fourth Annual NYC Hip-Hop Theater Festival, before moving to D.C. in July and San Francisco in September, gives Big Apple-area theatergoers another chance to see what he's talking about.

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