Homeboy Shakespeare

A man creeps through a field of recumbent bodies. Did I say man? More an ape with the instincts and long velvet muscles of a tiger. He stops to sniff at the fallen and unloose a guttural howl to the stars. This is "Rome," the Romeo of Rennie Harris's hip-hop take on Shakespeare, Rome & Jewels. In Harris's mind, this section is called "Darwin," and Rome is about to evolve, painfully, from a creature too primal even to get out the name of the girl he desires, to a neighborhood tough who praises his ladylove with "She had dumps like a truck," to a man of feeling and conscience.

Chain-link fencing (constructed by Doron Kutnick), live negative-image videos designed by Howard Goldenkrantz, and deeply colored lighting by Pamela Hobson create a battlefield for this raw and mesmerizing performance. Three intrepid DJs (Cisum, Miz, and Evil Tracy) wreak elegantly synchronized havoc on records, while, up in the booth, composer Darrin Ross layers in music and other sounds.

Will S. gets his due. Once erect, Rome (the amazing Rodney Mason) addresses an unseen Jewels with "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" then eyeballs the audience and teases, "You didn't think I was going to go there, did you?" Lines by the Bard share space with text contributed by Harris, dramaturge-performer Ozzie Jones, and other cast members. The rapping isn't into nail-your-eardrums repetition; it emerges as a rhythmic flood of the rich and strange. I think I heard something like "his gardenia-scented receiving gesture" and "pregnant with a green ghetto secret." Harris, at 14 a major fan of West Side Story, was originally dubious about bringing Shakespeare into his tale of feuding gangs, but it didn't take him long to make the connection. He believes that "rappers and lyricists, hip-hop poets of this generation, probably owe something to Shakespeare's writings and complexity as much as any poet today." Familiar to Shakespeare too was a world ruled by vengeance and duplicity. On the street, "a guy tells you one thing, but he's really saying something else, and you never really trust him, or something happens. . . . Someone's always got a game. . . . I realized that was Shakespeare. That was Hamlet. Wow! How deep is that!" In Rome & Jewels, Jones, as a "Cap" uncle just out of jail (he's also a snaky, popping, word-bending narrator), tells the brothers to "chill" after Rome and Merc steal his watch. In the end—after Tibault and Mercutio are slain, after Rome howls, "I am fortune's fool!"—he grabs Rome, snarls, "Where the fuck is my watch?" and kills him.

Rennie Harris's Rome & Jewels: torn between the rules of the game and tenderness
photo: Alan Solomon
Rennie Harris's Rome & Jewels: torn between the rules of the game and tenderness

Details

Rennie Harris Puremovement
Jacobís Pillow
Joyce Theater
September 26 through October 1

Dance Theatre of Harlem
City Center
Through September 17

Harris, hip-hop artist turned postmodern choreographer, knows that world. He survived growing up the eldest of seven kids on Philadelphia blocks they called the Badlands, where, if you were smart, you didn't walk past the corner. He saw friends kill other friends. He knew what it was like to be taunted as weak—the way envious Ben V. (Sabela Grimes) works on Rome—for opting out of violence. "Not knowing it was [a war zone] as a kid, I had no problem with it"—"it" including the street's view of women as chattel, notches in your belt. But he changed, and Rome struggles to change—torn between the rules of the game and the innate tenderness Jewels has uncovered in him.

Dance vitality, exuberance, and venom power this work. The Montagues (Mason, Grimes, Clyde Evans Jr. as Merc, Duane Holland, and Les Rivera) use a hip-hop vocabulary—fast on their feet and often in tight, blasting unison, even though Harris says, "Hip-hop is really more about attitude—just be a rowdy and the movement comes." The Capulets are B-boys—arrogant about their tribes' skills at breaking. When Ron Wood (Tibault), Brandon Albright, Jules Ulrich (the lone female—a tomboy), James "Cricket" Colter, Raphael "Xeno-Zen" Williams, and Forrest "Getemgump" Webb enter, they're twisting and spinning and flipping and diving. When Colter skids across the floor on his head, you understand what that puff of hair is for. The rumble's duels are virtuosic competition matches fueled by hate.

When I talked to Harris during the company's Jacob's Pillow season, he was still tinkering. He spent a lot of time developing Rome and his Benvolio ("Forget her, man, you know it's us, and she's nobody. What is your problem?" is the gist of Ben V.'s argument). Now Harris wanted to flesh out Merc and Tibault (Jewels is his lady, not his cousin). One interesting thing about the production is that there is no Juliet. When Rome or Tibault addresses her, you judge from their responses how she has answered back. The bedroom scene is an erotic slo-mo solo by Mason on the floor. Originally, Harris had a real woman playing Jewels, but that didn't work out; this summer he was wondering about the viability of a disembodied female voice commenting, since, in a sense, Jewels and her different morality have taken up residence in Rome's head. The piece, Harris thought, needed more euphoria after Rome makes love to Jewels, more controlled choreography in the fights.

All this pondering about structure and character, the talk about history and trends in hip-hop, plus Rome & Jewels itself, show how far Harris's theatrical know-how has developed from the days when he couldn't believe that dancing, which he'd always done, was something people took classes to learn. When he earned his first money performing, he starched and ironed every bill before displaying the take to his grandmother. But he's run a happening company since 1993, taught, won awards. I think a lot of his dances, overtly or implicitly, question violence, but he says that this one, Rome & Jewels, has finally moved him personally out of that space where he thought he was weak if he didn't respond to a slight with a fighting move. At first, he had no personal attachment to the piece, but knowing it so well, and understudying Jones, has slipped him inside it. "One foot in the street, one foot in the universe, that was me—always daydreaming, always daydreaming, yet I knew I was there." Rome & Jewels has also moved him into a new place artistically—a place where dreams and gritty reality are dancing partners.

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