THEATER

Theater Review: 'Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth' at Imagination Stage

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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hip-hop artist Psalmayene 24 isn't exactly hurting for accomplishments. His band PS24 has a regular gig at Busboys and Poets. A solo play he wrote has been anthologized. He appeared on HBO's "The Wire." And that's just for starters.

Should he ever yearn to turn over a new leaf demographically, he could have a bright future in children's theater, judging by his ingenious, colorful and (from an adult perspective) delectably tongue-in-cheek show "Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth," now getting its world premiere at Imagination Stage.

Written and directed by Psalmayene 24 (real name: Gregory Morrison), "Zomo" is a wily mash-up of West African folklore, elementary hip-hop theory and modern-day Washington know-how. Then there are also -- this is kids' theater, don't forget -- moral lessons that are as user-friendly and digestible as Go-Gurt (the play is recommended for age 4 and older).

The hero, Zomo, is a rappin', boombox-toting version of a traditional West African trickster character (Baye Harrell). When some fellow critters dis this bunny, he makes a cellphone call to the Sky God (Tuyet Thi Pham) to request a gift of power. The deity, a stressed-out yoga addict, agrees, on the condition that Zomo steal the most treasured possessions of Big Fish (Paige Hernandez), Wild Cow (James J. Johnson) and Leopard (Jjana Valentiner).

Those three animals live, respectively, at the D.C. waterfront, the National Zoo and in Adams Morgan (which is presumably easy for Zomo to visit because, as a long-distance hopper, he doesn't need to find parking).

The playwright has cleverly aligned the talking fauna with four staples of hip-hop culture: Fish is a break dancer, Cow a graffiti artist, Leopard a DJ and Zomo a rapper. But the script's dialogue is so breezy and personality-rich that the creatures never seem mere symbols. When Zomo infiltrates Leopard's penthouse by posing as a delivery guy bearing a termite-and-beetle pizza, she boasts to him about her pad (it's been featured on MTV's "Cribs") and her résumé. "I'm the DJ," she asserts. "World-champion turntablist. I like to think of myself as a musician of the highest order. Up there with the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, Kanye West, players like that."

"Oh, and you're humble, too," Zomo deadpans.

All the performers channel their characters with vibrancy and gusto, helping to make the play's zany melting-pot universe seem real. Looking urban-cool in his dreadlocks, slouchy hat, jeans and fingerless gloves, with just a touch of rabbit fur here and there (Katie Touart's costumes are commendably subtle), Harrell radiates both Zomo's roguish attitude and his essential kindheartedness. Another delightful performance comes from Hernandez, whose wriggling body language and slangy braggadocio show just how charismatic a break-dancing fish can be. (The character's lime-green hooded outfit, with frilly scales and turquoise-glitter-encrusted sneakers, is Touart's tour de force.)

Hernandez is also the show's choreographer, supplying robust hip-hop-inflected hoofing, including a particularly inventive sequence evoking Metro commuters who sway to keep their balance. Paige Hernandez's brother, Nick Hernandez, is "Zomo's" sound designer, contributing a range of beats and remixes. The music is largely infectious, though at a recent matinee, some young audience members seemed to grow restless during a long scene that sampled Leopard's DJ'ing oeuvre.

As a director, Psalmayene 24 keeps the action moving fluidly around designer Ethan Sinnott's set, which is dominated by a backdrop of enormous comic panels that splay out a fragmented D.C. cityscape. Distinctly legible on the panels are signs for the Lincoln Theatre and Ben's Chili Bowl -- just a couple of the here-and-now allusions that parents are likely to relish during the "Zomo" experience. (Oprah and Whole Foods find their way into the script, too.)

Parents will also appreciate the play's irreproachable philosophical messages: That compassion is better than power. That friendship and peace are worth sacrifice. And that art, as Zomo puts it, "glues" society together.

Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth, written and directed by Psalmayene 24. Lighting design, Colin K. Bills; props, Nikki Cammack; sound engineer, Chris Baine. About 90 minutes. Through March 8 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit http://www.imaginationstage.org. The production will also run April 13-18 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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