Cinderella’s a hip-hop heroine in quartet’s reimagined fairy tale for Imagination Stage

April 4

Forget ballgowns and glass footwear: The latest incarnation of Cinderella has dreams of a different order. Rather than coveting Disney-princess attire and an invitation to a royal party, the heroine of “Cinderella: The Remix” ― beginning performances at Imagination Stage on April 9 ― dreams of being a hip-hop DJ. Since girls aren’t allowed at the turntable in the macho-skewed, bling-crazed universe she lives in, what are the odds of her getting a gig so that she can crank out her dope beats?

Actually, the odds aren’t bad, given that she’s a fairy-tale heroine, her mixin’ and spinnin’ savvy notwithstanding. The odds are all the better, too, because four accomplished Washington area theater and music artists have her back. Writer-director Psalmayene 24, composer Nick Hernandez, choreographer-
performer Paige Hernandez and set designer Ethan Sinnott all share a vision of hip-hop as a joyous, empowering art form. When they collaborated on “Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth,” which Imagination Stage premiered in 2009, the experience was so positive that they reunited for “P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical” at the same theater in 2012. Now they have regrouped again for “Cinderella: The Remix”―the third installment in what is being dubbed “the Hip-Hop Children’s Trilogy.”

The trilogy is the brainchild of Psalmayene 24 (a.k.a. Gregory Morrison), a local playwright who is considered one of the pioneers of hip-hop theater, and who has also worked as a performer. (He appeared in HBO’s “The Wire” and Arena Stage’s “Ruined.”) A few years ago, Imagination Stage artistic director Janet Stanford invited Psalm (as his colleagues call him) to write a hip-hop children’s show.

“Not everything we should do [in theater for young audiences] is dusting off the classics and interpreting it in a traditional way,” she said recently by phone. “We should equally be listening to the young people and their culture.”

Game for the challenge, Psalm chose to do a hip-hop spin on the traditional West African trickster character known as Zomo. To help build the piece, he turned to the Hernandez siblings, with whom he had worked in an Arena Stage community-engagement program called Props 4 Hip Hop.

Growing up in Baltimore, Paige and Nick Hernandez had been hooked on hip-hop at an early age. “When we got good report cards, my dad would come home and buy us singles of our favorite rap songs,” the ponytailed Paige recalled with a laugh recently, sitting beside her bearded, bespectacled brother in the lobby of Imagination Stage. Discussing their work on the hip-hop trilogy, the siblings exuded confidence and an impish good humor, often elaborating on each other’s sentences or bantering back and forth. By contrast, the soft-spoken Psalm — who sat for an interview later in the day, sporting a very suave-looking dark cap — was all quiet intensity.

After coming of age in Baltimore, the Hernandezes went on to establish D.C.-based entertainment careers: Among many other credits, Paige, now 33, has toured her solo show “Paige in Full: A B-Girl’s Visual Mixtape.” Nick, now 31, has scored soundtracks for film and other media and has taught music production.

When the siblings met Psalm, the three of them hit it off. “We spoke the same language,” Psalm, 40, recalled.

He knew they would be major assets in the creation of “Zomo.” Among other considerations, he thought Nick’s hip-hop music would give the show a vital element of accessibility.

“He really strikes this perfect note, with sounds that are really pleasing to ears that aren’t used to hip-hop, and that also sound authentic,” the playwright says.

Paige signed on to play the “Zomo” role of Big Fish, a mythically piscine embodiment of break dancing, and she doubled as choreographer, aiming at creating a style of hip-hop dance so infectious and relatable “that the audience watching it can do it in their seats.”

Sinnott, now 39, came to the team as an established set designer, a role he has juggled with his work as a faculty member at Gallaudet University.

An ebullient hip-hop show like “Zomo” was a good match for the kind of “visual musicality” he says he likes to weave into his sets.

His deafness “has always influenced and informed my approach,” he said via e-mail, explaining that he sees sets as spaces “with the ability to seemingly transform themselves.” Sometimes he relies on machinery, scenic pieces that can be manipulated by actors, or other means to create “visual rhythm and flow.” (For example, video screens built into the “P.Nokio” set relayed images of the title character’s lengthening nose.)

Psalm and the Hernandez siblings have reveled in Sinnott’s scenic contributions, which have made vibrant use of graffiti and other urban references. (When collaborating on the hip-hop trilogy, Sinnott has been assisted by an ASL interpreter.)

“Ethan is the man!” Paige Hernandez says jubilantly. “He has the best artistic hip-hop eye! He gets the aesthetic!”

“I get inspired when I see his sets,” her brother agrees.

All four collaborators are equally enthusiastic about the girl-power theme in “Cinderella: the Remix.” It’s a theme that has become integral to the structure of the whole trilogy.

Psalm says that, during rehearsals for “P.Nokio,” it occurred to him that the show — which reimagined Pinocchio as a computer game character — had an of-the-moment feel, while “Zomo” (subtitled “A Hip-Hop Creation Myth”) reimagined the culture’s past.

His next children’s fable, he decided, should deal with hip-hop’s future. “I said, ‘What do I think would best serve the future of hip-hop?’ ” The answer was, “to get more diverse voices involved — particularly female voices. There’s a glaring absence of females in hip hop.” What better fairy tale than Cinderella to use in approaching this topic, he thought.

“Cinderella: The Remix” rebukes the strain of misogyny that has sometimes been perceived in commercial adult hip-hop, says Paige Hernandez, who will portray the title character. On the other hand, she doesn’t think the show speaks only to the matter of gender roles.

“Cinderella: The Remix” is about integrity and self-actualization, too, she says. It’s “about being an individual — overcoming obstacles, to really say who you are.”

Cinderella: The Remix April 9-May 25 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.

Wren is a freelance writer.

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