Rhyme Deferred nails down the fledgling concept of hiphop theater but still has to figure out what exactly it’s talking about.
Let’s see…You’ve got not one but two DJs on stage mixing and scratching the most obscure underground hiphop instrumentals. You’ve got b-boys (that’s “b” for “breakin”—”breakdancing” is a term used only by squares) answering the DJs’ calls as if it’s 1979 all over again. You’ve got rappers battle-rhyming in ciphers before an astonished audience. There’s even an authentic graffiti backdrop. But still, this ain’t just a hiphop show. Welcome to hiphop theater. A brand-new genre? Perhaps. But definitely a phrase just buzzing to be caught.
This particular piece of hiphop theater, featuring b-boys from the Lionz of Zion, rapper Priest da Nomad, DJs Think and RBI, and many other local talents, is called Rhyme Deferred, a twist on Langston Hughes’ Dream Deferred. Kamilah Forbes, a recent graduate of Howard University’s Theatre Arts Department, wrote the play. It began as a simple idea Forbes came up with back in Howard’s Playwright’s Lab, a workshop for young writers, and developed into a nearly two-hour production of the newly formed Hip-Hop Theatre Junction production company. Forbes’ old department has just picked up the show for a nine-day run at the school’s Environmental Theatre Space starting next Wednesday.
Rhyme Deferred is the story of two brothers, both rappers. One becomes a mainstream—and therefore wealthy—success. The other—younger and more talented—brother struggles in the hiphop underground developing his skills. As older brother Kain’s popularity begins to fade, he returns to the streets to try to regain his credibility. Haunted by a greedy record label constantly pushing for more product, Kain resorts to stealing younger brother Gabe’s notebook of rhymes in a desperate attempt to come up with fresh material. The common good-brother-vs.-evil-brother motif here is couched in specific hiphop terms. Gabe’s plight reflects that of unsigned rap artists worldwide, and Kain’s flamboyant similarity to Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs is none too subtle.
But more than subject matter defines Rhyme Deferred as hiphop theater. Forbes describes it as deploying “hiphop performance elements as theater conventions or theater tools.” The most obvious examples of this strategy in Forbes’ piece are the dual DJs posted at the rear of the stage from the beginning of the performance: They splice in music and soundbites like a ghetto Greek chorus, and their beats provide cues for the actors. Ron Brown, aka DJ RBI, compares the process to traditional hiphop production. “It’s almost like making a beat. But it’s a long beat,” he says.
Once the dialogue gets under way, there is no mistaking the hiphop environment. As much of the script is rapped as is spoken. At least three of the cast members are legitimate, practicing MCs on the D.C. hiphop scene. Others are poets. In keeping with accepted hiphop ethics—Thou shalt write thine own rhymes—the verses were mostly written by the performers themselves. In a risky departure from typical theater, Rhyme Deferred contains scenes that are merely blocked; the performers improvise different rhymes for each show, or freestyle every time.
Since most of the cast comprises hiphop heads, this freestyling, freewheeling attitude informs their approach to acting—”hiphop energy” animates the performance, suggests W. Ellington Felton, a former theater student at Carnegie Mellon University who shares the role of Kain with another actor. “You’re still showing your stuff, but is it theater? You know what I mean? That’s what will surprise a lot of people about this show,” he says. “The fact that when they get in there, they’re going to see some bad actors.” (That’s “bad” meaning good, of course.)
The hiphop energy even carries over into the show’s promotion. In August, Rhyme Deferred traveled by invitation to North Carolina for the National Black Theatre Festival. Owing to murky administration problems, however, the show was added late to the festival and never appeared on printed programs. Forbes & Co. had to figure out how to promote their own show. “Before we went down there, we were like, ‘OK, since we were added late to the festival and we weren’t on the main billing, we have to come up with ways to attract attention to our piece,’” she recalls. “So when [festivalgoers] came down, we were handing out fliers. But then we brought some linoleum and set it out in front of the hotel. It was really ill.” The b-boys started breaking to music coming from a portable stereo the company had brought. “Everybody was standing around, and we all started freestyling,” remembers Forbes. “It got people’s attention.” Cast members also wound up appearing on two separate panel discussions.
Forbes had contacted the festival’s organizers because she heard they were looking for hiphop theater pieces. There was even a panel on hiphop theater. Nevertheless, Forbes and her company have mixed feelings about the new buzzword. “It wasn’t a big picture like ‘Oh, let’s start a movement, a hiphop theater movement,’” she says. “I guess it is a coincidence, but other people are doing it.” Felton views the merging of hiphop and theater as “just a reflection of the times”—the product of a generation that grew up on the Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC, and Nas making its contribution to theater.
Previous generations haven’t greatly pushed the boundaries of black theater much, Felton argues. “Basically, black theater has two parts: You have the Chitlin Circuit, and then you have what’s considered serious theater, legitimate plays. The Chitlin Circuit is like those momma-on-the-couch-hairdressing plays. And then you’ve got August Wilson, Ntozake Shange, the quote-unquote serious, the real theater,” Felton says. “What hiphop theater is, what makes it so powerful…is the reality that here we have found or we are developing what black theater has been longing for forever, basically: something which is in the middle. It’s legitimate theater, but at the same time, the theatergoer that lacks the etiquette or whatever, the tradition, they can still enjoy it.”
Psalmayene 24, a local actor nominated for a 1998 Helen Hayes award for his role in one of D.C.’s first hiphop theater pieces, The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown, serves as choreographer for Rhyme Deferred. Aside from a connection with its audience on a musical level, Psalmayene 24 also cites the “call-and-response” nature of hiphop as part of hiphop theater’s appeal. “In traditional theater nowadays, it seems that the audience is like a separate entity from the players onstage. When, actually, in original theater there was no clear delineation between audience and performers. It was just a huge ritual,” he says. “Because the nature of hiphop is so community- and ritual-based, we’re bringing that back to theater.”
Psalmayene 24 recognizes “hiphop theater”‘s potency as a catch phrase. “With the popularity of hiphop, to have anything with ‘hiphop’ in the name now, it’s going to strike some level of attention,” says 24. “So in terms of calling it ‘hiphop theater,’ yes, there is a tactic behind that.”
After being birthed in Howard’s workshop, Rhyme Deferred’s first real public appearance was a three-night run at the Metro Cafe on 14th Street NW. On the third night, the play closed to great applause, and, as usual, the company opened the floor up to questions and comments from a mostly approving audience. The cramped room hushed awkwardly as a young Latino teacher surrounded by three or four small children—presumably students—asked a delicately phrased but direct question. The teacher challenged the company on two homophobic references buried within the lyrics of Gabe.
The actor who plays Gabe, Jabari Exum, responded to the question, but only after admitting in so many words that he had not really thought about the content of his rhymes. His answer involved the idea of homosexuality as an “unnatural” act. Obviously making up the response as he went along, Exum used that explanation as an metaphor for Kain’s “unnatural” choice to cross over to the mainstream. The majority of the audience—though not the teacher—bought his rationale and quickly moved on to the next question.
In their efforts to use theater to portray such a relatively young culture, the Hip Hop Theatre Junction will undoubtedly encounter problems dealing with just those aspects that make hiphop’s immaturity abundantly clear. Exum’s careless homophobia was just a particularly ugly example. The players will likely also need to reckon with hiphop’s tendency toward simplistic storytelling, stereotyping, and emphasis on delivery over content.
At first, Forbes’ characters were flat, one-dimensional types—which the writer attributes to the manner in which the story developed. “It started with a concept, and then the plot, and then the characters,” she says, “as opposed to conventional theater, where it’s more character-driven.”
But the play has undergone revisions since its first run. Like other company members, Felton, who joined later, saw a need for more realistic portrayals. “The choice I was making coming in there was, I wanted my character to be an actual person, not necessarily a caricature or a depiction of a certain genre or type of image,” he says. “I wanted him to be human. In fact, I told them jokingly when they called me about doing it…’Look, I’m going to have the audience love this guy. At the end of the play, they’re going to cry for him.’”
The company regards Rhyme Deferred as a work yet in progress, a rough draft. The roughness of hiphop theater is similar to that of hiphop in its early-’80s infancy. It is also similar in its sense of hope—already, individuals are looking to the budding subgenre as a theatrical back door, a way around an unfeeling industry that still places a “stigma” on African-American actors and performers. “I go on auditions,” Felton says irately, “and I can be even 10 times more credited, and 10 times more trained, and 50 times more talented than the other person, but they can’t see beyond the fact that I’m a young black male that’s part of this hiphop generation. And I don’t even necessarily wear baggy jeans all the time and things like that.”
In typical hiphop boastful fashion, Felton’s tirade ends in a plug: “What hiphop theater is doing is, it’s now employing actors like me, and like Psalmeyene 24, who are talented, who are trained, who can do any part from Shakespeare to soft-shoe.”
Psalmayene 24’s hopes are equally strong, if a little less self-serving. “Once you put it inside the theater, people who go to the theater are going to be open to it,” he says. “But the thing that’s lovely about it is that now you’re going to get a lot of younger African-American kids interested. That’s who I’m really hoping will come out to see it, because a lot of our kids unfortunately have never been to the theater.” CP