By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Like a wall of bright but disparate graffiti, the new children's musical "Hip Hop Anansi" teems with good ideas that don't quite cohere.
This Imagination Stage world premiere, which has a story taken from Ghanaian folklore, has a multicultural approach one can only admire. And the performers gesture their lines in sign language, as well as speak them -- or let another actor speak them (the creative team includes several deaf artists).
Then there's the aesthetic of hip-hop -- a potentially intimidating art form to the uninitiated -- which comes across in a family-friendly way. No parental advisory labels are necessary for this show, directed by Patrick Crowley: It's hip-hop you could serve with cookies and milk.
Unfortunately, the lackluster book by playwright Eisa Davis fails to knit together all those ingredients in a satisfying way.
Davis presents us with an egocentric, street-smart family: the Ghanaian trickster spider Anansi (Fred Michael Beam) and his children (Keith S. Brown, Paige Hernandez, Warren "Wawa" Snipe, Linden Tailor and Peace Justice Universal, aka DJ Eurok). In the lead-up to a local talent competition, the characters must decide whether they selfishly will compete for the top prize -- the Fly Pie, a pastry made out of flies (here, a pun on "fly," slang for stylish) -- or pool their skills. In either case, they must vie with a monstrous predatory roach.
That scenario does generate clever moments. At one point, the spider children -- named Gab, Spray, Worm, Ah-ight and Two Turn -- repair to a sneaker cemetery (it's where old sneakers go when they die, Gab explains) and take turns bragging about their abilities. Because the youngsters identify variously with elements of hip-hop -- namely, rapping, DJ'ing, break dancing and graffiti -- the sequence has a nice thematic resonance, and it's also fun and catchy. "I come out oven-toasted like a Pop Tart," boasts the rapper Gab, "Comin' with the beats and rhymes that make me top chart." Set designer Ethan Sinnott's contribution to the scene -- scruffy tennis shoes, dangling from chains overhead -- adds a charming dose of whimsy.
But elsewhere, the lack of narrative momentum bogs down the show. The children spend a lot of time hanging out -- not a compelling activity from an audience perspective -- and the rivalry between them and Anansi feels too friendly to be suspenseful (in one less-than-gripping scene, the father offers $20 to the child who does the best job of cleaning the house). Because the threat presented by the roach remains vague, it's hard to get worked up about that subplot, either.
Part of the problem might be that, whether for reasons of acoustics or the actors' articulation, Davis's words are not very audible. So some plot-related information slips by the wayside, and listeners also are cheated out of many of the ingenious rap rhymes.
Fortunately, the musical numbers, with their loud, insistent beat, periodically inject energy -- all the more stirring because of the shiny DJ booth mounted onstage. Peace Justice Universal, who portrays the show's DJ character, Two Turn, is also the production's sound director.
When Two Turn starts blasting those tunes, the other performers caper through mild break-dancing moves, interestingly integrated with sign language. Snipe (who plays Worm) and Brown (Gab) are the sharpest dancers; Snipe even executes a hands-free cartwheel. Hernandez, as the graffiti addict Spray, does her hoofin' with a can of aerosol paint in hand. The choreography is by Beam, who makes a rather bland Anansi.
With an evocative spider's web made of chains, and graffiti-plastered columns, set designer Sinnott balances fantasy with urban realism. And costume designer Johnetta Boone opts for the latter mode with her homeboy-casual look -- baggy jeans, a track suit, etc.
It's Colin K. Bills's lighting, however, that adds the most punch. His shifting patterns of brightness and shadow, and beautiful glistening effects along the strands of the spider's web, have a dynamism that's lacking in the show as a whole.
Hip Hop Anansi, by Eisa Davis. Directed by Patrick Crowley; choreography by Fred Michael Beam. About 75 minutes. Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit http://www.imaginationstage.org/ .