Chile, you do not want this job. Aiight, the upside is that you get to see some fierce theatrical visions for free like once every season, and I ain’t knocking that. Girlfriend loves her catharsis and whatnot. But for the most part it’s like, motherfuckers miming four-hour finger-puppet versions of The Winter’s Tale. Li’l peeps what just graduated outta Yale tryna jam on some postmodern Heiner Müller vibe that’s way beyond the grip of anyone whose experience of Eastern Europe ends at Veselka. Scripts by folks who call theyself a playwright ’cause they got a MFA, when they really need to get in a SUV, drive to L.A., and write for TV. That crusty old Chekhov Ibsen-Brecht or whatever his name is, and more clumsy Greek plays than at a singles bar in Astoria.
For real, the good thing about the Third Annual Hip-Hop Theater Festival is that the two-week extravaganza promises all kinds of multiethnic recombinations of the type that make New York City da bomb—the Shakespeare Puppet Theater Festival of Potter’s Field will not be in attendance. Blood Trinity, Suheir Hammad’s solo piece about Palestinian identity, is gonna be realized by Puerto Rican performer Lillian Rivera and directed by bicultural Bahia Munem. Blatino feminist Aya de Leon gonna read some hip-hop chauvinist pigs the riot act. New York solo performers including the bewitching La Bruja and Tish Benson gonna turn it out, dance troupes Rennie Harris PureMovement and Dance Montage gonna do some fly hip-hop dance, and playwright Chadwick Aharon Boseman plans to bust out some Egyptological Hieroglyphic Graffiti. While props go to P.S.122 for including this kind of fare in they regular season, it’s also pleasing to see it as the norm for a little while. Hello.
Now if all a critic was apposed to review was people intentions, then this gig would be hella easy. One might just go on previewing these jams like that previous paragraph did, saying, “The programmers has really put together an impressive roster,” or “This promises to be good,” like you writing John Gotti’s eulogy. But the best laid plans of mice and men and whatnot, know what I’m saying? Opening night was supposed to re-create a magical 2001 Yerba Buena Center production featuring some all-stars of solo performance—England’s Jonzi D, San Francisco’s Will Power, and master code switchers Sarah Jones and festival executive producer and Svengali Danny Hoch, representing NYC. But you can’t be reviving the past and expecting the same results.
Near the end of a very long pre-show speech promoting the festival we already knew about ’cause we was there, including pushing its T-shirt and Web site (people, the ghetto fabulous hard sell is tacky and it has to go!), festival artistic director Kamilah Forbes delivered the news that Jones wasn’t gonna be there due to food poisoning, an announcement that got a big groan from the audience. Jonzi D, a charming dread-headed English-bred West Indian, performed an energetic but simplistic piece about his search for identity on various continents. Unable to find community in Jamaica, the U.S., or Zululand, he tells his pilot, “Just keep flying!” Will Power, a skinny, intense brother you can’t take your eyes off, did one-sixth of his urban griot epic. While his rap chops are up there, and despite the hilarious characterization of hip-hop hardliner “Old School,” for a story about storytellers the plot got very muddy. Maybe some of them urban griots out there need to hook up with a urban editor. There gotta be a Web site for that.
In between these two, Hoch did three monologues from Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop: the Cuban clave salesman (performed mostly in Spanish), the Puerto Rican physical therapy patient tryna get a rap with a Czechoslovakian girl, and the Midwestern teenage grayboy practicing for a interview on Jay Leno. Hoch’s a brilliant actor, and these slices of life is still as enjoyable as they was four years ago, but their colors are fading a little, especially the third one, ’cause since Eminem’s shit blew up, the idea of a white rapper from Michigan just ain’t as funny no more. And what has my man been working on since Jails? Maybe Sarah Jones knows.
On the second night, playwright-director Rickerby Hinds and crew presented Act I of Keep Hedz Ringin’, a “hip-hopera” based on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Cleverly translating the ring into a gold 45, Hinds substitutes a Tupac figure named Al B. Rich for Alberich, the hideous gnome who steals the ring, and a Suge Knight type, Ra, for his rival Wotan. Maybe it’s just ’cause hip-hopera’s a new joint, but the high volume of Roy “DJ 12play” Johnson’s score, darting between Dr. Dre Cali-style and almost industrial beats, made it hard to hear Hinds’s rhymes, even though the good-looking and hyped-up Demos Franklin and Shay’La Banks’s performances commanded attention. You couldn’t really follow the story, but they did provide a summary in the program. It was loud, undecipherable, and you wondered why they was doing it in the first place. That meant all they needed was supertitles to make it just like one of them white operas.