Hip-hop theater fights for legitimacy

NEW YORK — After a New York season that has included hip-hop flavored offerings both on Broadway (Sarah Jones’ “Bridge & Tunnel”) and off (Will Power’s “The Seven” at New York Theater Workshop), the theatermakers behind that genre face a crucial question: What’s the next step for a movement in its first flush of success?

A possible answer comes from the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, an early home for both Jones and Power that mounted its sixth Gotham run June 20-24. Having grown well beyond its roots as an ad hoc collection of artists, the fest is now the prime example of both hip-hop theater’s growth and its continued struggle for legitimacy.

In its mission to bring hip-hop culture into the theater — with young, diverse urban auds in tow — the event has radically expanded its scope, becoming a nonprofit in 2004, and then a year-round producing organization with national goals. This year, HHTF appeared not only in New York, but also staged its third event in San Francisco and its first in Chicago. July will mark the fourth edition in D.C., and soon after, the org will produce a national tour of “Live From the Front,” a solo show by spoken-word artist Jerry Quickley that chronicles his time as a soldier in Iraq.

While there’s no hard and fast definition of hip-hop theater, it is essentially a performance that utilizes prominent elements of urban and ethnically diverse culture: rap music, spoken word, slam poetry or hip-hop dance such as krumping.

The impetus behind all these events is the same: service a community of artists and fans whose interest in hip-hop theater is rarely matched by the offerings of established companies.

HHTF executive director Clyde Valentin understands the reluctance of many theaters to support hip-hop artists. “There’s definitely a hunger to take more risks creatively, but there’s a dependence on existing, older subscribers, and there’s a factor of intimidation for artistic directors who may have a limited understanding of hip-hip culture and aesthetics,” he says.

However, Valentin believes diverse younger auds that have avoided theatergoing can be cultivated if they see more shows featuring artists who reflect their own age and cultural experiences. Discussing the fest’s youth-skewed programming, he says, “It’s speaking directly to a generation that (many theaters) are not reaching, although that generation, en masse, is already experiencing other forms of entertainment.”

Jones’ “Bridge” introduced various characters in a poetry-slam context, and Power’s players spoke almost entirely in a verbal tap dance, but rap isn’t a prerequisite to hip-hop theater.

HHTF participant Ben Snyder’s play “Rock, Paper, Scissors” covers everything from growing up in New York to the war in Iraq. Brazilian solo artist Frank Ejara performed his physically demanding “Som do Movimento” at the fest.Festival artistic director Kamilah Forbes says her patrons are squarely in the demographic often deemed elusive. “Our target audience is between (ages) 15 and 45,” she says. “That’s who we’re getting. And they’re loyal.”

Yet despite this fan base, it’s not as though the HHTF magically has turned a generation of young people into avid theatergoers. The challenge of fusing hip-hop and legit is as steep with auds as it is with theater companies.

The primary concern is building an audience beyond core enthusiasts. Valentin reports, for instance, that the Gotham fest draws around 3,000 attendees — a respectable number, but not one that can nourish lengthy runs.

Power has first-hand experience of how hip-hop auds need to grow. While critically lauded and well attended, the Gotham run of “The Seven” played to a disproportionate number of older, wealthier patrons, he says.

“You can attract those (young, diverse) groups for a weeklong festival or a one-night show,” Power muses. “It’s still really hard to get those audiences over a long period of time. Hip-hop theater is trying to reach not only a diverse audience for today, but also find an audience that can be sustained.”

To that end, one of the fest’s goals is to expand its four-person staff to include employees who can focus on marketing and brand awareness. Valentin says he hopes to find major corporate support, though companies that target hip-hop consumers have proved reticent. “There’s an inherent challenge to convincing our peers in the corporate sector that urban audiences will be interested in seeing theater,” he explains. “They don’t see it as a viable market.”

That attitude is a bit paradoxical in light of the HHTF’s continued growth, and hip-hop theater’s increasing visibility. But it will take time to convince corporations, theaters and even ticket buyers to change their attitudes about legit.

For now, Power says, hip-hop theater needs to maintain momentum by focusing on artist development, high-quality work and reaching new crowds, one show at a time. Echoing Valentin and Forbes, he asserts that the key is building with slow, sure steps.

“The movement and the festival have gotten stronger as they’ve pulled more people in, but it’s a process,” Power says. “The history is being written now.”

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