In 1973, DJ Kool Herc brought a reggae hybrid from Jamaica, and introduced it as a new activity for kids in his Bronx neighborhood. It grew and, by 1983, hip hop had its first bona fide superstars in Run-D.M.C. Come 1993, hip hop had become the world’s fastest-growing artistic subculture. In 2002, hip hop influences everyone from N’Sync to Bubba Sparxxx, and everything from corporate target-marketing strategies to (now) Shakespearean theater.
Take a moment to picture that, Shakespeare as a b-boy (read: break-dancer) or Romeo as a roughneck. Thanks to dancer-choreographer Rennie Harris, it takes no stretch of the imagination to conceive it. On Jan. 11 and 12, at Ann Arbor’s Power Center for the Performing Arts, patrons will be able to witness Rome & Jewels, a hip-hop hybrid of Romeo & Juliet and West Side Story.
“I never thought of myself as a dancer or choreographer until I was, like, 30,” says Harris, founder of Rennie Harris Puremovement and a native of Philadelphia who grew up immersed in hip hop. “When I read an article that said, ‘dancer-choreographer Rennie Harris,’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ Like, wow, how deep is that?”
How deep is it that kids who once break-danced on cardboard platforms and rocked freestyle rhymes to street-corner human beat boxes are now participants in and leaders of the professional performing world?
“I saw West Side Story when I was 14,” Harris explains, “and I loved it and was inspired to want to create something. I related to being in the street. I related to being the underdog. I related to the love. I related to the violence. I thought that West Side Story would have been better with hip-hop dancers.”
Rome & Jewels transports the epic tale of doomed love to the hood. Whereas, in West Side Story, romance blossomed in the midst of feuding gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, Harris’ version pits the Monster Q’s against the Caps (echoing Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets). The modern dance of West Side Story is replaced by the breaking of the Q’s, and the hip-hop dances of the Caps. Credit Harris for meticulously sizing up the changes in music culture by fusing three DJs who stitch popular music into the fabric of the play. This only intensifies the emotion of an already profound love story and makes it relevant.
The most notable adjustment, however, is the language. Hip hop, as we know it, has rhythm. But Rome & Jewels blends the iambic pentameter of hip-hop dialect with the rhythm of Shakespeare to reveal stark similarities between the two. Hence, when Rome approaches Jewels’ window (the audience never actually sees Jewels), the usual “What light through yonder window breaks” dons a new guise.
“Yo, Jewels, it’s me! Rome!” shouts actor Rodney Mason. “Walk with me, baby. See, sometimes, too hot the eye of heaven shines. …” It’s hip-hop creativity at its best.
“Rodney Mason plays the lead role,” Harris says while explaining how the idea for the blended language came to be, “and turned out to be an avid reader of Shakespeare’s work; and one day came into return rehearsal while we were still rehearsing, and said, ‘Yo! Yo, um, Rome. Thou art a villain. So what up!?’ It was like, oh, snap! Then he was like, ‘The fizearful pizassage of dizeath mizark lizove. (Translation: The fearful passage of death marketh love.)’ That’s hip hop. That’s dope.”
“Rome & Jewels approaches the idea of complexity using hip hop as a forum,” says dance historian Thomas DeFrantz. “You learn about the emotional inner life of the characters through the dance. Now we’ve never seen this before, using hip hop as the idiom. So it’s a fantastically important piece because of that.”
To purists and connoisseurs, the adjustment or combination of the two epic romances will hark the culture’s history of boundary-busting ingenuity. And while the likelihood of Shakespeare fans accepting the interpretation might seem questionable, Rome & Jewels has been met by critical acclaim for its intensity and artistic brilliance, and its unique way of telling the story of Romeo & Juliet. But truthfully, each generation has found Shakespeare’s work timeless enough to continue subjecting him to assimilation. Don’t forget Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 presentation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet on the silver screen.
Harris’ hip-hop, street-tinged approach to theater happens in an age when the mayor of Detroit leads the city wearing the earring his wife gave him, and goes to work rocking the music of Common. Changing times mean changing standards, so it must be considered that hip hop will revolutionize the way the world does a lot of things. Rennie Harris, through his reconditioning of two classic stories, has deemed Shakespeare worthy of a beat and a rhyme. Prepare to be assimilated.Khary Kimani Turner keeps it flowin’ for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]