Hip hop was born in the Bronx a quarter-century ago when dancers, DJs, and visual artists cultivated their craft at house parties, small clubs, subway yards, and in the streets. It was a neighborhood art form, shaped by individual skills and dedicated to the here and now, the marriage of politics and partying. With the entrance of MTV, hip hop went global. People were break-dancing in Paris, mixing discs in Japan, buying the fashions in suburban malls.
Mainstream theater, however, has remained largely immune to hip hop's influence. The Hip-Hop Theater All-Stars, performing this Saturday, November 9 at the Walker Art Center, are trying to change that. The group, featuring New Yorker Danny Hoch, New Jersey's Will Power, and London's Jonzi D, is a touring component of the three-year-old New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival, founded by Hoch.
"We know the people running mainstream theater are older than the hip-hop generation and most of the audiences are older, too," explains the Obie Award-winning Hoch, who at age 31 fits his self-defined demographic of individuals born between 1967 and 1990. He coined the phrase hip-hop theater as a strategy "to break down the doors of mainstream theater and get young people there."
Hoch was also responding to the lack of theatrical material addressing today's concerns. "As actors we could get jobs in a Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare play," he explains, "but nothing to do with contemporary themes." The issues of the hip-hop generation, Hoch continues, involve "economics, who is in power, the state of technology, education, the prison- and military-industrial complexes, heightened media assault." People growing up during the Reagan era, Hoch says, "have a different perspective on the history of the world and the United States."
The program is a sampler, featuring excerpts from solo shows. Hoch, for instance, will perform parts of his acclaimed Jails, Hospitals, Hip-Hop. Don't expect him, however, to rely on familiar aspects of hip hop to bring his characters to life. Instead, Hoch devotes his uncanny mastery of accents and gestures to portraying a Montana kid who wants to be a player in the music business and a Cuban man quizzing an American tourist about life in the States. "Rap is really the last component of the elements of hip hop that come into play," says Hoch. "The only reason why it became popular is because you can buy it in a store and take it home. Hip hop began like an ancient kind of theater with the urban griot telling stories about what was going on in the community, making it funny and entertaining, politicizing it and moralizing it."
The 32-year-old Power agrees with Hoch's assessment, focusing his work on the ways global events transform individual experience. A performer recently described as a "kung-fu Gumby" by the New York Times, Power adds a hyper physicality to his rhythmic patter. An MC and actor, Power creates characters who contribute their own "rhythm or vibration" to a chorus of voices and original music. His piece "Flow" focuses on a particular neighborhood, using sometimes outrageous events to make its points. "There's a character named Preacherman who introduces a new kind of religion not based in segregation," says Power. "It's not homophobic, it's open to other religions. The other churches say, 'My god is the one true god.' So a deacon and an old lady decide to do a drive-by on Preacherman....It's obviously a metaphor for older institutions trying to shoot down new ideas."
Through unpredictable narratives like this, hip-hop theater aims to debunk the genre's one-note marketing image--a misleading mix of materialism and misogyny. "If we allow corporate America and MTV and Tower Records to define [hip hop], it won't be what it was intended to be about," Hoch concludes emphatically. "It's really about resistance."