All the World’s a Stage: Bringing Hip-Hop to the Theater

In the first act, the dancers’ movements are slow, calculated. The lights focus in on the stage to highlight the sinuous muscles of the three men rising and turning in an avant-garde mix of movement over break beat. The textured lights follow a narrative of fluid motions that seem to mimic a ship at sea, a journey taken from break dancing to modern dance. The dancers, members of the Philadelphia-based olive Dance Theater, are performing a production of Olive, an original multimedia narrative. In this performance dance takes a fantastical journey through the art of b-boyin.’

When the lights come on, they shine on an audience that many may not consider your typical theater-going crowd. They are young (many are teenagers and under the age of 30) and primarily youth of color. After the show some gather outdoors in corners freestyling, while others comment on the performance.

Thus began the third Annual Hip-Hop Theater Festival in Washington, D.C. This festival, which was founded by Danny Hoch, Kamilah Forbes and Clyde Valentin in New York in 2000 (then in in D.C three years ago and San Francisco last year), has evolved into the nation’s most comprehensive and influential display of hip hop aesthetics—showcasing solo and ensemble dance pieces and plays, as well as workshops and panels. According to critics, the festival’s popularity with a younger crowd symbolizes hip hop’s movement from margin to center stage in contemporary theater.

Once a movement of the underground, “Hip-Hop Theater” has burst onto the stages of the mainstream, blurring the line between high and low cultur. As one of the organizations that has brought the movement to the forefront, the Hip-Hop Theater Festival’s mission is to present and support live performances by artists who stretch, invent and combine a variety of theatrical forms, including dance, spoken word and live music sampling to express the diversity of the human experience through Hip-Hop culture. While supporting the production of Hip-Hop theater-based work, the festival also designs and implements programs that address the socio-political issues impacting their target audience—underserved urban youth spanning the ages of 12 to 35.

This year’s artists mean business. Marc Bamuthi Joseph performs “Word Becomes Flesh,” a series of performed letters to an unborn son in which he uses poetry, dance, live music and visual art to document nine months of pregnancy from a single father’s perspective. This runs alongside Aya de Leon’s Hip-Hop feminist manifesto, “Thieves in the Temple.” Her show is described as a battle cry for grassroots Hip-Hop consumers and creators, particularly women. Tackling similar, complex issues is Chad Boseman, the director of “Deep Azure,” a play that addresses the concepts of abuse, brutality and redemption.

Then there’s Full Circle Productions, a nonprofit entertainment company that graces the stage utilizing DJing, breakin’, MCing, spoken word and dance, all infused in Latino and African American youth culture. Its founders, who worked their way from the outdoor performances of street shows, now reach large audiences touring internationally at festivals like this one.

Full Circle’s artistic director, Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio, says that not much has changed in how they approach their shows. “We’re just street performing to stage,” he says, adding that he was trained in an art that has been passed down through generations. “The social exchange is a village experience,” says Kwikstep. “[You] go into cipher or circle and learn it.”

Redefining Aesthetics

These Artists see Hip-Hop Theater as being at the center of a global youth culture. But this generation is not alone in calling for an aesthetics that encompasses their experience. When Danny Hoch called for “theater that is by, for, and about the Hip-Hop generation” he echoed the words of W.E.B. Dubois, who called for “theater by, for, about and near” African Americans in the 1920s. The revolutionary aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement (the artistic arm of the 60s Black Power Movement) created artistic work that took on the struggle for socioeconomic, racial, gender and sexual equality (inspiring artists such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, the Last Poets and Ntozake Shange). Many of these movements were in tangent with cultural and musical revolutions (August Wilson’s plays were informed by the blues and Ntozake Shange’s work was informed by jazz).

“We are not reinventing the wheel. Just look at our history,” says Daniel Banks, a New York University drama professor who helped to create the educational parts of the Hip-hop Theater Festival.

The rituals today known as Hip-Hop were birthed in the post-60s climate of New York’s inner city neighborhoods, sprouting from the lives of the people who lived there. A collage of art forms—graffiti, emceeing, break dancing, turntablism—reclaimed public spaces by turning inner city walls into art galleries, street corners and parks into dance clubs, and turntables into technological inversion as symphonic as any saxophone.

Hip-Hop Theater was shaped on the streets and then nurtured in community performing arts centers and on college campuses, outside of the modes of mainstream funders and foundations like the National Endowment for the Arts. But is goes back even further than that.

“We are rooted in music and are practitioners of an ancient tradition,” says performer Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

The use of Hip-Hop aesthetics continues to define this cultural continuum. “[Hip-Hop] is just this generation’s relation to sound—Black people and the drum. [We] move from sound to rhythm to text,” says Joseph. “We move, speak, dance in folkloric traditions We are folkloric traditions…our art is interdisciplinary, a mythological method.”

Playwright and actor Chad Boseman sees Hip-Hop Theater as ritual, as well. “We are taking it back to what it was in the beginning—a ritual, a reenacting of what is in front of you, a myth happening,” Boseman says. He adds that you can’t box Hip-Hop in because “when you do that it is no longer Hip-Hop.”

“If our art is not evolving us, then it’s oppressing us,” Boseman maintains. “When an emcee is on stage, some people say its not theater. But it is. It’s just not Western. We are griots; we are reclaiming this [art] in our indigenous forms. We want to take theater beyond what people normally see.”

U.K.-based artist Benji Reid calls the work he does in Hip-Hop Theater the marriage between “movement and language and the power of storytelling.” Reid tries to use the language of breakin’ to signify emotion and to speak. “It is about how to tell stories of all the suffering in a new context… to tell stories of suicide, redemption, rites of passage,” Reid says.

“Hip-Hop Theater is the prose of Hip-Hop,” says performer Aya de Leon. “Some of us have craved to tell the longer story. The stories of people trying to transform their circumstances.”

De Leon also points out that women have a strong presence in Hip-Hop Theater, if not in other elements of Hip-Hop. But the combination of the two (Hip hop and theater) has created new spaces for women. “I felt like I was coming in the backdoor of Hip-Hop,” she says.

She underscores that her work is about reexamining Hip-Hop. “I grew up on Hip-Hop and it’s my voice. So now I can reclaim my voice and look at how sexism plays a role in discouraging voice,” she says. She wants to be an example of Hip-Hop Theater for a new generation of women coming up. “There is a demand for women’s voices not being filled in other media… Hip-Hop Theater is a place for this.”

Performing a Generation

The idea to call it “Hip-Hop Theater” came about in 1999, at the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, NC. Since then, these festivals have reached out to nontraditional theater audiences, such as young people who may not identify with the world of theater, but who do identity with Hip-Hop.

Kamilah Forbes, the festival’s artistic director, sees the art form as an evolution of our generation speaking in a way they need to speak. “There is always contention about what Hip-Hop Theater is. It has an energy, a spirit, something transcendent,” she says. The actress, director and playwright, adds that Hip-Hop Theater is “a growing aesthetic, defining and developing itself.”

Although Hip-Hop Theater can trace its origins to the do-it-yourself mentality of this generation, its influence has hit the mainstream recently, winding its way into a steady flow of Broadway and off-Broadway productions. (Think of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs playing Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, Regina Taylor's Drowning Crow and MC/actor Mos Def in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog). Much of today’s Hip-Hop Theater can find its origins in the spoken word movement that rocked coffee houses in the late 1990s. Russell Simmons’ Tony-award winning Def Poetry Jam is one such influence. Spoken word champion and “Hip-Hop poet” Reg E. Gaines also introduced the Hip-Hop aesthetic to a vast mainstream audience in the early ’90s when he penned the poetic phrases behind the Broadway hit, “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk.”

Hip-Hop theater artists often bring underrepresented voices to the stage, such as Danny Hoch (whose Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop combines beat-boxing, deejaying, spoken-word poetry and rap to tell the stories of multiple characters living in the inner-city) and Hanifah Walidah (whose “Straight Black Folks' Guide to Gay Black Folks” tackles sexuality in the Black community). Other artists make their impact in choreography, like Jonzi D and Rennie Harris (Puremovement of Philadelphia); in ensembles, such as Universes and I Was Born With Two Tongues; in solo acts, such as Danny Hoch, Sarah Jones, Will Power, Caridad de la Luz, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Liza Colon-Zayas, Teo Castellanos and Mariposa; and in playwriting, like Ben Snyder, Kris Diaz, Eisa Davis, Chad Boseman, Candido Tirado and Kamilah Forbes.

“Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson once said that history judges a race by the quality of its literature and art. If jazz and modernism are the formal legacies of his generation, Hip-Hop may be one of the formal legacies of ours. Content may never change, stories always stay the same, but new forms alter consciousness, actually change the way we imagine ourselves,” playwright Eisa Davis said in an article for the Theater Communications Group.

Indeed, this generation of artists is a generation much like Hip-Hop itself — one that reshapes, reflects and remixes the past and innovates toward the future. It is a generation that finds its voice in a variety of languages—visual, music, dance and poetry.

Kwikstep says Hip-Hop Theater is a start, but there will be a day to “just let go... it will not be Hip-Hop Theater anymore… just theater.”

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