"Let me see the heads," he demands, stepping front and center, peering into the audience, arms folded, eyes widening in indignation, head nodding.
"Let me see the heads!"
In the audience, heads start to do the collective hip-hop nod recognized in rap clubs around the world -- folks are too cool to break out and dance but not immune to the beat. And so they comply with his command. Up and down, up and down, heads bob to the beat.
But it's not enough. Benji Reid, human beat box, hip-hop mime, body-popper, spoken-word artist, thespian and social commentator on all things rap, wants more.
"Deee-Ceeee!" he entreats, prowling the aisles of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater last night, a wiry bald professor of rap from Manchester, England.
His performance is the kickoff to the week-long Hip-Hop Theater Festival celebrating the intersection of hip-hop, the culture, and hip-hop, the art.
"Make some noise like you got in here free!" They did, and so they do, rattling the rafters.
And as they shout, he struts, arms flying, legs bouncing him around the stage, while he chants the shibboleths of rap: "The roof the roof the roof is on fire! We don't need no water . . ." And, "When I say hip, you say -- "
"HOP!" the crowd shouts back.
Now that kinship has been established and he's got them all worshiping at the altar of rap, he stops and stares at the audience. And makes a pronouncement:
"Hip-hop is dead. Strangled by a platinum chain."
And with that, Reid begins "Thirteen Mics," in which the pop-lock-dancing social critic dissects the purported demise of an oft-maligned music and culture, time-surfing through three decades of musical history. He takes on platinum rapper Lil' Jon, he of the monosyllabic grunts, turning the innocuous "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into a treatise on Atlanta crunk. He bemoans the commercialization of rap, an industry that has turned thinking rappers into "lip-synching minstrels," and wonders aloud what would happen if Malcolm X's speeches were sampled and remixed to "sell Coca-Cola."
"How can hip-hop be dead when it's our CNN, our U.N., our World Health Organization?" he asks. "Our art form is a reflection of ourselves and our aspirations."
The Hip-Hop Theater Festival, to which admission is free, runs through Saturday, with performances at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater and Millennium Stage, Studio Theatre and Provisions Library.
Begun in New York in 1999, the festival spread to San Francisco and Washington, where it's in its fourth year. This year a "D.C.-centric" festival is the goal of the D.C. Arts Commission and Hip-Hop Theater Festival organizers, who are highlighting homegrown talent but also including international talent for the first time.
"Every festival needs to represent the local landscape," says Artistic Director Kamilah Forbes, who will launch the Hip-Hop Theater Festival in Chicago in September.
On Friday, there will be a staged reading of Silver Spring-based playwright Psalmayene 24's "Undiscovered Genius of the Concrete Jungle." Psalmayene has been active in hip-hop theater since "folks have been doing hip-hop theater" -- that is, the early to mid-'90s. Hip-hop theater, he says, was a natural way for him to bridge his two loves, rap and theater.
His play uses five actors and a DJ to tell the story of a playwright who sets out to write about the homeless in the District, only to have a homeless woman turn his world inside out. Movement and music are essential to the play.
And that, Psalmayene says, is what distinguishes hip-hop theater from other theatrical genres.
"It's theater that utilizes performance elements of hip-hop to tell a story," he says. "Just because someone may throw some rapping into a play doesn't necessarily make it hip-hop theater in my eyes. It has to be consistent throughout the play."
That theater should spring out of this global music form is no surprise. Rap has grown as a music form and as a culture, an aesthetic encompassing four elements: rapping, DJing, breaking (dancing) and tagging (graffiti art). Indeed, from the very beginning, rap was a theatrical art form, epic storytelling played out against a bouncing beat.
Hip-hop was made for theater, with rappers crafting personas that may or may not have anything to do with reality. There's 50 Cent, former drug dealer, with his legendary nine bullet wounds. Will Smith's "Fresh Prince," the earnest middle-class kid from Philly. Lil' Kim's multiple personas, from the sexual temptress to the prim, Marc Jacobs-clad character of her courtroom appearances.
Just as hip-hop redefined music, sampling snippets of already existing music and then speaking (rather than singing) lyrics, it has stretched the definition of theater, according to Forbes. Case in point: Two years ago, festival organizers in Washington presented the performance piece "Hop Fu," in which they used four turntables and two DJs to mix, match and re-score a kung fu movie, "The Prodigal Son."
"It was exciting," Forbes says. "And it was theatrical. . . . It's not your typical play. But it's redefining what 21st-century theater is like."
And so, like the music the culture comes from, hip-hop theater is elastic. There are monologists like Danny Hoch -- the festival's original producer -- and Sarah Jones, who have gained national prominence, and body-poppers like Reid.
"Hip-hop theater uses these tools," says Forbes, "whether it's dancing, popping, breaking, beat-boxing and rhyme, or DJing. Many of the artists that we present in the festival use many of these performance elements of hip-hop as storytelling tools. It's about presenting stories of a generation."
So yes, with the festival, there are plays, from an evening by hip-hop thespians Wednesday night at Studio Theatre to Thursday evening's performance of South Asian playwright-actor Anupama Yadav's "Capers" to Friday night's presentation of "Read: White and Blue," Washington's Hueman Prophets' play about connections and disconnections between urban and suburban hip-hop heads. "Urban griot" Fouad Pervez will perform "September 12th," a one-man show about the days after 9/11 as seen through the eyes of a Pakistani American. Also scheduled are D.C. poet Quique Aviles's "Rehab Diaries" as well as a "Listening Salon" for the hip-hop rendition of "Dante's Inferno." There are documentaries, such as "Brown Like Dat: South Asians and Hip Hop" and "Sounds of Spirit," which chronicles the West Coast's underground hip-hop scene.
Wrapping up the festival on Saturday are Washington's theatrical team of poets, Sol y Sol, and the Poemcees, D.C. rappers who are expanding beyond music to present a theatrical work in progress, "Grown Folks."
"It's really interesting when the artists are able to express themselves in various venues and outlets," Forbes says. "It's exciting. Ultimately, it begins to push the boundaries of what hip-hop art is. Not the culture, but what the art is."
For more information about the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, which runs through Saturday, call 202-724-5613 or visit www.hiphoptheaterfest.com.