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Cerebral Cypher

really putting the hip-hop in theater

Nov 26, 2008


What makes hip hop theater is the practitioner, not just the hip hop elements in the work. The artist must operate in the hip hop aesthetic. By virtue, the work will in turn be hip hop theater. The elements of hip hop as they stand, breakdance, DJing, MCing, and graffiti art, even the lesser acknowledged beatboxing, are tropes. These elements present in a piece of work may qualify it to be hip hop theater but a work absent of these elements can still be hip hop theater; it will be measured by another model of which these tropes only scratch the surface. This model is the artist him/herself. As said earlier, if the artist operates in the hip hop aesthetic, so will the work.

Behind every element there is a far deeper philosophical and technical value. If these values are somehow present in the work, it is hip hop theater. This leaves room for urgent and creative work that moves hip hop beyond novelty and theater beyond spectacle.

For example, graffiti practiced on stage is an element hereby permissing the work to be hip hop theater. The creation of live art or a masterpiece on stage, a play about graff artists, references to Sharpies and Magnums (lemme have fun), or characters who practice the art reasonably qualify the work as hip hop theatre. We’ve seen these plays before. We’ve seen the live painting, the factory cap spraying gestures, the monologue by a writer. (Before I was a writer, I was a writer. I wrote Logic Starr. I wasn’t very good. Oh man). These days though, graffiti has found itself in museums and the mainstream. As Keith Herring asserts commercialization is necessary because it denotes accessibility to a wider audience. Keith Herring was a hip hop artist in principle and method, if not style, technique, and tools. (He used chalk, not Krylon). What would make a piece of theater compelling though is also what could make a theater piece that’s not obviously hip hop theater on the surface to actually reveal itself as a standard of hip hop theater. The real ethos and story behind the graffiti element is its principles—graffiti is vandalism and the artists use aliases. That is important but rarely broken down. A piece done with permission is not the same as the one done at 3am, careful of the 3rd rail, chasing a white elephant. Nor are they the same plays. There are different risks, a different urgency that all lends itself to our character’s impetus, action, and obstacle. With graff, there is spatial cognition (really?). There is a relationship between a person and their environment—more specifically the structural environment. Graffiti is a story about eminent domain, pride of ownership, the social contract, angst. As well as the parts that everyone knows which are the spray cans, German caps, and wild style. That is why Style Wars is a great documentary because it told that story. A play doesn’t have to stop at featuring graffiti the product to bring to center stage graffiti the process (I do not mean the making of the physical art)— ideas of pseudonyms, private vs. public property, around the block as canvas, structural and architectural relationships. With the latter, it would be an even better piece of hip hop theater because now we’ll be moving forward to developing a learnable and teachable technique to creating hip hop theater as theater and activism, as theater cultivating social change.

I think hip hop theater’s agenda, or the desperate need of a hip hop philosophy, (which every culture needs to articulate in order to survive. That culture’s guiding principles. America’s is the Constitution and we see what happens when we veer too far from our principles, but I digress) is inherently present in processing the elements. There is a mission statement in the elemental ingredients, not just the elements. There we will find the ethos. We will learn hip hop theater is about urgency.

MCing might invite all of us to write in rhyme, or like Homer, in verse. Or like Shakespeare in meter, in iambic pentameter, what it is to bring it in on the one. We’ve seen and heard the hip hop theatre plays that employ rhyme. Lord Alfred Tennyson spoke about the perils of free verse. Free verse can be awfully undisciplined and leaves poetry horribly unfinished. A play in rhyme is an obvious case for hip hop theater, and we’ve seen these well-disciplined plays, and we will begin to see more plays written in meter that are excellent examples of hip hop theater borrowing from the same respect. Moreover, the principle behind MCing is not just the rhyme, or verse, but a principle that guides all of hip hop culture— the economic use of.  My solo show Reminiscence of the Ghetto & Other Things That Raized Me is hip hop theater because it explored one basic principle that I believe is a guiding philosophy in hip hop culture which is making due with what you’ve got. I explored this philosophy in story content, narrative, gestural material, blocking, (and decisions about casting). This idea is also connected with the economic use of words. Free verse is luxurious. Rhyme and verse is on a budget. It also forces focus in a way that free verse does not. MC rhymes are so effective because the genius is concentrated; so much is said in so few lines. A play can be hip hop theater though, even if there is no rhyme or evident verse, if the principles of MCing are present, such as the concentration of imagry, or the economic use of text, most notably MCing’s use of allusions which offers endless possibilities, and an MC’s boasting. Hip hop songs, of which I mean rap songs, are so often autobiographical. So many hip hop theater shows are solo shows, and so many solo shows are autobiographical of the writer or the character portrayed. I would argue this is a feature borrowing from the MC’s content being about him/herself.  Not all biographical solo shows are hip hop theater, but plenty of hip hop theater plays are autobiographical solo shows, just like an MC’s songs. If not autobiographical, they are most certainly about the artist. The most successful people are those who narratize their lives best. Hip hop theater as a method is used to assert agency. (Gimme a play especially a solo show, that’s not.)  This is assembling the “I.” Whenever something becomes documented it automatically becomes fictionalized. Even something that was real life once. At this entry point, an artist can exercise objectivity, to practice craft, and critical analysis with communication and an audience in mind.

What is MCing if not about free style, and the basis of theatrical practice and teaching is improv. Why there not more improvisational hip hop theatre troops? How can the improv technique be defined to teach the creation of hip hop theater? In acting fine, but is improvisation used as a method by writers when creating their hip hop theatre? Why isn’t it so evident in the completed work? I argue a related point that the context, method, in which a work/paragraph/line is created should be evidenced in the play. I think this is a moniker of hip hop theater. For the process to be present in the product. (If you thought of it while eating a bologna sandwich, where’s that damn sandwich on the stage? Where is feeding yourself? Where is hands to mouth? Is it? How then can we qualify this as an audience? That’ll be the next great challenge!)

DJing is about a score, or soundtrack. There doesn’t need to be a DJ on stage if the context doesn’t provide for one. The methods of the hip hop DJ can be present in the hip hop theatre piece. The writer may borrow from the DJs techniques. A method I am committed to is sampling. I sample my family, my friends, people I know, the neighborhood. I sample them and their words. I remix experiences. I remix my personal experience performed and written, with history, philosophy, current events, science, and material in the public domain. I intersplice these works to create a new whole larger than the sum of its parts. I start with an argument/thesis/or as in the role of a traditional hip hop MC, I start with a boast, and I employ/remix difference sources to prove it. (Word?)

Breakdancing can easily become spectacle. Even the word “breakdancing” is frowned upon. (Call it going off, b-boying or b-girling. What does the “b” stand for?) There need not be breakdancing in a hip hop theatre play. However a moniker for organic hip hop movement in a play can be the same circumstances that birthed breaking. (Not
“Breakin’”). So many of these movements came out of stylized interactions between the b-boy/girl and his/her city. Physically negotiating the city. Moving around the neighborhood. (The way the pimp walked out of his car. Crossing the street while dodging cars). Here, the use of gestural material is hip hop theater. I create my movements through a basic premise which I believe is central to creating hip hop theater, letting my voice cue my body. In hip hop theater we can borrow from the traditions of mime and also, what results, can be considered the height of hip hop and theater, which is illustrative gesture. It’s a method I employ—creating gestural material that illustrates the subtext. There is tension in hip hop, and with this technique, I can create a tension between action and meaning.

I think hip hop theatre has a structure. That structure is non-linear and it is fragmented. Perhaps the non-linear comes from our attention deficit; perhaps it is a symptom of our increasingly growing obsession with all things cinematic. The quick scenes, the jump cuts; the structure is cinematic. This is handily evidenced in hip hop theatre plays. The structure is as fragmented as our psyche. Surely hip hop theatre can be linear. I’m just saying that a staple of hip hop theatre is a non-linear and fragmented form.

Reading into the elements will make for an enriching theater experience. And not offer another recap.

Because hip hop does, hip hop theatre has elements of call and response evoked from the oral tradition and also audience participation. (That’s an easy one). But the potential of what audience participation can mean and the practice is still largely untapped. I’d call for a further chiseling of the fourth wall. Right now as it stands, direct address is not the end of it. (Come on).

What does it mean to be a director or direct in the hip hop aesthetic? I have not seen it yet. I call for directing a play not characterized as hip hop theatre (not written in the hip hop aesthetic) to be directed in the hip hop aesthetic. I think this would bring a further cohesion to the hip hop theater form and further inspire the creators of hip hop theater with futuristic possibilities. That is important. There is nothing else I can say about it except, we have to try it first.

Perhaps, futuristically, we are moving towards a place where hip hop theater is practiced, there is a method, what I mean is, it can be taught and learned. This is where we are now of course, but we’re not their yet because we haven’t agreed on techniques (and probably don’t need to), there is no official complete guide, and some people don’t even know what hip hop theatre even is.

Hip hop theater is about engaging the disenfranchised theater-goer. And not just the 18-35 crowd as prescribed by The Hip Hop Theater Festival. After all, what happens after 35? Most of the folk leading the aesthetic are over 35. Before Generation Y there was Gen X. Should they retire? (I am not close to 35). Maybe hip hop theater is theatre and activism. Hip hop theater is issue based theater aimed at cultivating social change. As we move away from the self-referential, away from hip hop theater about hip hop, and towards large subjects that will ensure our democracy, we can show our progression while being honest to our circumstances and stories.. Danny Hoch is doing it with his play about gentrification. After all that IS hip hop theater at its best. Hip hop theatre can influence public policy. What would a play about the environment be like? Or global warming? Can we remix Al Gore’s an Inconvenient Truth? It is happening to our neighborhoods. Our neighborhoods are the central focus in hip hop theatre; so many of us have written about where we are from. How can writing about global warming break open the idea of where we are from and what’s happening to our neighborhoods?

For hip hop theatre’s guiding principles, philosophy, technique, and agenda, we can borrow from cousin rituals like Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, the revolutionary rebellion against the infringement of democratic freedoms as practiced by the Founding Fathers, Augosto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

What is hip hop theatre? Does hip hop theatre have an agenda?  Is the aesthetic suffering an identity crisis? Are we suffering an identity crisis? Is that why this is all so hard? Or maybe there is no such thing as hip hop theatre, and there is only theatre. And this is it. Creating good theatre is the most cutting edge as you can get. And what makes hip hop theatre hip hop theatre is that it’s timely. It is of its time. Reflective of the time. And that’s it.

Even more accurately, maybe hip hop theatre is theatre that is cool. Coolness means something here. Don’t all hip hop theatre plays have being cool in common? Cool is poise under strife. Cool is a way of life. The cool pose struck against the inequities of ghetto life. This brings us back to the artist. The artist is cool. The artist is hip hop. The theatre the artist creates is hip hop theatre. The agenda of hip hop theatre is the agenda of each individual artist. (It’s hip hop theatre because I said so).

Just make sure it’s tight, ‘aight?

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