D.C. hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon is a musician with a mission statement. He’s hustled hard, earning a Grammy nomination and a local fan base, but he won’t take a gig unless it furthers his vision for the world — an ideal he calls “cultural acceptance and unification.”
Bacon found a perfect match in Woolly Mammoth’s “We Are Proud to Present …,” a dark comedy about a mixed-race group of actors grappling with the legacy of colonialism. At the request of director Michael John Garces, Bacon wrote a score composed almost entirely of rhythms played by the actors themselves, using only their mouths, bodies and objects from the set.
Though he’d never written a theater arrangement before, Bacon was excited to introduce one of D.C.’s finest theaters to body percussion — an art he learned as a kid too poor to buy instruments. The kinds of prejudices that come to light in the play are just what Bacon wants to help mitigate with his music.
Bacon, 27, grew up in the Washington Highlands neighborhood of Southeast, where he and his friends banged out go-go beats on buckets and trash cans at impromptu drum circles. Now, he practices “progressive hip-hop,” music that mixes hip-hop elements like spoken rhymes and beatboxing with other genres and instruments from around the world. A video of Bacon beatboxing to a classical Indian raga convinced Garces to make Bacon part of the play’s production team.
“I just loved the eclecticness of his aesthetic,” Garces says. “I was really impressed by the breadth of his understanding of local music traditions and hip-hop.”
“We Are Proud to Present …” follows six American actors — three black, three white — who are writing a theatrical interpretation of a historic genocide committed by the Germans in one of its African colonies. The rambling full title of the play (“We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915”) gets at the actors’ discomfort with and distance from the topic. Their writing progress is sporadic, halting often for debates over how to interpret the story.
That’s where the music comes in. As they work through the story, the actors sing, stomp and clap, making rhythms that lace together and build toward a coherent song. When they bump up against a disagreement, the improvised beat falls apart, turning a steady groove into disjointed cacophony.
Two weeks before opening night, Bacon was still working on the score. He wanted to add a recorded cello track to the cast’s rhythms, but the actors’ timing varied with each run-through. If they were tired, they went slower. If they were feeling energized, they sped up. And no one could predict what would happen when an audience arrived.
To account for variations in the performance, Bacon plans to give the recorded elements of the score to a live sound technician, who’ll turn them on and off when triggered by the stage action.
“It’s very much like jazz,” Bacon says. “You’ve got to leave some of the stuff open for anything to happen.”
Though the show isn’t a musical, the bits of song and rhythm that weave through the narrative act as metaphors for the conflict onstage. For Bacon, music has always been about exploring human connection.
“Through music, I was able to experience different cultures, and it made me … see how everyone is connected and the same,” he says. “[The play] stirs up a little something for everyone — not just white people, not just black people. Everyone has work to do when it comes to building those relationships.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW; through March 9, $20-$80; 202-393-3939. (Gallery Place)