Having already taken on fashion, film and TV, hip-hop has begun crossing over to the stage.
In recent years, shows such as “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” and “The Bomb-itty of Errors” funked up the stage one at a time. But this season hip-hop shows have been a more consistent presence, both in New York and London.
In June, rap impresario Russell Simmons’ “Def Poetry Jam” took home a Tony. “Flow,” Will Power’s one-man show of record-scratching and freestyling (improvised rhyming), is onstage, co-produced by New York Theater Workshop. And in London, “Da Boyz,” an urban reincarnation of the Rodgers & Hart classic “The Boys From Syracuse,” just closed at London’s Theater Royal, Stratford East.
Success has not been uniform: “Bomb-itty of Errors,” a long running Off Broadway hit, recently, er, bombed in London’s West End (“Da Boyz” fared better in the East End). And “Def Poetry Jam,” while a prestige item that won lots of critical acclaim and brought new audiences to Broadway, closed without recouping.
But experts on the genre, and in the theater, agree that hip-hop is probably onstage for good.
“Theater must respond to hip-hop in a big way: Hip-hop is a very large strain of modern America,” says Toure, author of the forthcoming “Soul City.”
A worthy point. But is the crowd that pays to see Vanessa Redgrave as enthused about Jay-Z?
The uneven performance of these shows suggests the answer is still uncertain, as is the question of whether the trend will come to constitute a new genre.
“It’s not fully there yet, but we’re seeing it evolve before our eyes,” says Nelson George, author of “Hip Hop America.” “But there’s going to be a lot more. People are talking.”
Observes Toure: “I am skeptical if an actual hip-hop theater has developed, whereby we could say these are the tenets as opposed to other sorts of theater.”
Indeed, besides rhyming and some vinyl-spinning, arguably there are more differences than similarities between “Def Poetry Jam,” with its multiethnic cast and emphasis on spoken word (poetic narratives not necessarily rhyming or driven by a beat), and “Flow,” which brings the griot tradition of storytelling to the inner city. “Da Boyz,” meanwhile, could be confused with a rap concert — seats were removed so the aud could jam while DJ Excalibah mixed tracks.
Reasons for the hip-hop insurgence are as numerous as grooves in a record.
One theory is that hip-hop — a culture that takes pride in “keeping it real” — has grown away from its roots in “disenfranchised black people,” as Simmons phrases it. It has moved from the park bench to Park Ave. Think P. Diddy: a red-carpet fixture with his own clothing line and branded Cadillac.
Theater, with its bare-bones approach to art — a play, an actor, no special effects — is seen as a way to return hip-hop to what it was about in the first place: words.
“Rap music has become product-driven and based on formulas that yield success for major corporations and record labels,” said Clyde Valentin, director of Gotham’s Hip-Hop Theater Festival. “The theater is a broader platform for artists to express themselves and tell stories.”
Danny Hoch, who developed and directed “Flow” and has an upcoming play about “the thirtysomething hip-hop generation” at Baltimore’s Center Stage, attributes the trend to the adults weaned on hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s. “They’re starting to dominate the landscape of performers, artists and directors out in the field,” he says.
Nelson George has an even simpler reason. “Hip-hop is all acting. Some are more gangster than others, but it’s a creation of persona. That’s why every rapper uses a fake name. It’s an inherently theatrical form.”
Regardless of why it’s evolving, hip-hop-inspired theater could be one answer to one of Broadway’s perennial problems: how to draw a younger, cooler crowd.
In London, “Da Boyz” attracted Stratford East’s core aud as well as rap fans eager to see the likes of Demolition Man and MC D. “Flow” is bringing a similarly mixed crowd to downtown’s New York Theater Workshop. (A recent aud had as many tattoos as bifocals.)
“The only way to gain the interest of these young people is to give them stuff they want to listen to on the radio and in their houses,” says DJ Excalibah, who transformed the “Boys of Syracuse” score to a “garage, R&B, basement, hip-hop sound.”
If the shows are treated like concerts, with emcees and video screens, so is the marketing. Emails, stickers and posters are delivered by street teams on a quest for buzz.
“It’s the same tools a record company would use,” Valentin notes.
As for 50 Cent making his Broadway debut, however, don’t hold your breath.
“I don’t know if we could take hardcore rap to the theater,” Simmons says. “Some rap would be difficult to digest.”