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“Die, die, die!” shouts a cheeky Jujube Brown, played by Psalmayene 24. He sits on a box onstage in khakis, and his locks bounce about while he plays with two toy cars. At age 6, he already knows that when the police stop a black man, it’s routine that the black man be taken to jail. Jujube never wants to go to prison. Instead, he dreams of an island where Now and Laters grow on trees and there is no garbage, a place where he can play pool and go fishing. But by the time he gets to high school, his dream has become a nightmare in which he’s sliding inside the barrel of a gun, and Uncle Sam, in an attempt to beatbox, drenches him in a sea of saliva.
This is just one of The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown, written and performed by Toni Blackman and Psalmayene 24 as part of the African Continuum Theatre Company’s Hip Hop Theatre Fest 2000, along with Kamilah Forbes’ and the Hip Hop Theatre Junction’s Rhyme Deferred. This new genre of hiphop theater, Blackman says, emerged around 1993, from the hands of people like London artist Jonzi D, partly in an attempt to “present more to theater than just a corny musical.” Both productions weave the elements of hiphop—poetry, rhymes, beats, and movement—throughout their narratives. “There is live sound, rapping, which is really a dialogue as the breakdancers talk through your body,” notes Forbes. The result, Blackman hopes, will give new life to black theater.
The first production builds on what happens when Jujube’s poetry skills win him a scholarship out of his poor neighborhood to attend a prestigious school. The school, it turns out, stifles his creativity; he struggles to find ways to express himself artistically in the face of intolerance. The second piece concerns rap artist Kain and his efforts to maintain artistic integrity in the face of commercialism. Both pieces incorporate strong female characters who act as best friends and spiritual advisers to the lead characters when they’re down—part of an attempt to trace the roots of hiphop all the way back to Africa.
At the beginning of a staging of Rhyme Deferred, local DJs TaekOne and RBI scratch samples from Company Flow, Tupac, and Puff Daddy from behind shiny silver barrels. “God spit out beats like cosmic intercourse, words became flesh, and prophets echoed truth in the wilderness,” says a character named Herc from center stage. “Hiphop is not one nice hook, not one smooth move, and not one album. Hiphop is like religion.”—Ayesha Morris
The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown shows June 16 at 8 p.m. and June 17 at 2:30 p.m. Rhyme Deferred shows June 17 at 8 p.m. “When Theatre and Hip Hop Collide,” a panel discussion, takes place on June 18 at 3 p.m. The Hip Hop Philharmonic Project/Open Mic/ Cypher takes place June 18 at 6 p.m. $12-$25. All events are at the American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center. For more information call (202) 529-5763.