Hip-Hopping the Fence to a New Form

(By E. Watson -- D.c. Commission On The Arts And Humanities)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Performance artist Holly Bass helped put the term "hip-hop theater" on the map and is helping put the real thing onstage this week as part of the DC Hip Hop Theatre Festival. The fifth annual free event continues through Saturday at the Kennedy Center and Studio Theatre.

When young people hear the phrase hip-hop theater, says Bass, who first used the term in a 1999 article for American Theatre magazine, "they think, oh, this play may be interesting. . . . And when older, traditional theater audiences hear it, they say, well, I don't know that much about hip-hop, but it says theater and I get theater. . . . I'll check it out." Crowds at the Washington festivals have been "one of the broadest audiences I've ever seen at a theater in D.C," she says.

Performers in hip-hop theater "tend to be classically trained," Bass says. "They tend to be very positive. They tend to be educators and activists. . . . They tend to be really concerned with expressing a story . . . human stories that haven't been heard."

This year's festival includes dance theater, spoken word and straight plays, including excerpts from the off-Broadway success "In the Continuum," which comes to Woolly Mammoth at the end of summer. Bass is directing and choreographing an excerpt from her work-in-progress about an ancient African American woman who performed in vaudeville. The elderly showbiz veteran suddenly unhooks her IV and joins backup dancers in an amalgam of "popular black dance of the last century -- Lindy Hop, Charleston, Beyonce booty-shake," Bass says. The piece will be among the 10-minute hip-hop plays showcased at Studio Thursday and Friday.

Also at Studio on Thursday is Papi Kymone Freeman's play "Prison Poetry," a drama in which three African American men of different generations find themselves sharing a jail cell. The oldest character is based in part on exonerated death-row inmate Shujaa Graham, who now lives in Washington. He clashes with an arrogant young law school grad. The third man, a middle-aged poet, tries to reconcile them.

"I felt compelled to tell a story that no one really wants to talk about that goes on behind those walls," Freeman says. To him, theater is "not about entertainment. The theater is the last hope that we have of having anything that can remotely be controlled by the people."

Memo to D.C. Workers

Communism wasn't much on the minds of Artistic Director Michael Dove and his Forum Theatre and Dance troupe when they began rehearsing renowned Czech playwright Vaclav Havel's 1965 apparatchik satire "The Memorandum."

"Originally the idea was to go very current [and] political, to talk about the Bush administration," he says. But soon, "it sort of felt like a shoe that didn't fit too well, just because the language [in Vera Blackwell's translation] is so British and it's very much about that Monty Python era of speed and language."

In the play, which runs at the H Street Playhouse through July 23, upper management tries to impose a ridiculous invented language on workers in a nameless agency. The employees twist themselves into knots trying to be on the right side of their bosses' whims. Meanwhile no work gets done. "Everyone is so concerned for everything except what their job is, and everyone in D.C. can relate to that," Dove says, wryly.

In addition to the obvious resonances with George Orwell's "1984," Dove says, "we talked a lot about Enron while we were rehearsing this show -- corporations that have no regard for the individual."

But eventually, he and his cast simply let the play happen. "Once we concentrated on just telling the story and just working on characters . . . as opposed to trying to make some Bush-Cheney connection," he says, "we realized that it was much easier to find through-lines."

The experimental, design-and-movement-oriented Forum company gave the dehumanizing aspects of stifling bureaucracy in Havel's play a visual twist. "Hardly anyone ever touches," Dove notes. "We found it really comfortable to stage a lot of things where people weren't looking at each other directly."

New at MetroStage

The American premiere of "Girl in the Goldfish Bowl" will open MetroStage's season Sept. 13-Oct. 15. Canadian dramatist Morris Panych's play centers on an 11-year-old girl watching her parents' marriage founder as the Cuban missile crisis looms, until a mystery man washes up on a nearby beach and offers her hope. Gregg Henry will direct a cast that includes Susan Lynskey.

A new musical, "Bricktop" (Jan. 17-Feb. 28), salutes singers Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Alberta Hunter and Mabel Mercer and spans 1920s Chicago and Harlem, 1930s Paris and 1960s Hollywood. Book and lyrics are by Calvin A. Ramsey and Thomas W. Jones II, who will direct; original music is by S. Renee Clark. Among the cast are William Hubbard, Roz White Gonsalves and Gary Vincent, all of whom appeared in "Two Queens One Castle" this season.

"Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)" (April 4-May 27), a spoof of Broadway puffery by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart, will be staged by Larry Kaye.

Special MetroStage events in the coming season include a new revue by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and conceived by Michael J. Bobbitt to be presented Sept. 2 at the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage New Play Festival; a Nov. 4 jazz concert by MetroStage performers with the Alexandria Symphony; and a Feb. 9 staging at the Canadian Embassy of "Shakespeare's Will" by Canadian writer Vern Thiessen, with Catherine Flye as the Bard's just-widowed Anne Hathaway.

Follow Spot

ยท The Musical Theater Center in Rockville raised more than $10,000 at a sold-out benefit performance of "A Chorus Line" at the Fitzgerald Theatre last month. Susan Lippman, daughter of the late Joseph Papp (the original producer of "A Chorus Line"), hosted the event, starring alumni of the school's 1998 production, several of them now professional performers.

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