Issue March 18, 2008

B-Sides (music & other ephemera): Hip hop hooray

Hip-hop history meets experimental theater at this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. Marc Mabuthi Joseph is directing “the break/s,” which opened March 11. The play, based on hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang’s book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” is touted as a “living history of hip-hop,” and runs through the end of the month at Actors Theatre. Joseph checked in from Houston.

LEO: What about “the break/s” compelled you to write it?
Marc Bamuthi Joseph
: Jeff Chang’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” fulfills the greatest desire of any hip-hop generation educator. Chang balances his critical analysis with loving contextualization, placing the artistic movement that we mid-wived within a network of local and geopolitical forces. In reading Jeff’s text, I was immediately able to identify the relationship between his macro-narrative and my personal story, and quickly moved to create an appropriate context where the two might meet: the stage.

LEO: Having performed on HBO’s “Def Poetry Slam,” how does hip-hop affect performance art? Do you see it playing a greater role in future plays?
MBJ
: I derive personal performed narratives out of collaboration, with an emphasis on spoken storytelling — verse-based work that is spoken through the body, illustrated by visual and sonic scores, and in communication with the important social issues and movements of the immediate moment. That is a direct result of having grown up in hip-hop. My goal is to embody theater’s connection from Shakespeare’s quill to (DJ) Kool Herc’s turntables; from Martha Graham’s cupped hand to Nelson Mandela’s clenched fist: a new voice for a new politic. I believe this aesthetic will be increasingly pervasive in the decade to come.

LEO: What do you want audiences to learn from this play?
MBJ
: I have been effected by hip-hop culture the same way that, say, Tony Kushner has been informed by rock music or psychedelia. I’d like theatergoers to identify generational correlations like these, and in so doing, shift hip-hop from the margins to the core of their artistic experience. I want younger audiences to recognize that my work is just as much hip-hop as Jay-Z or Souljah Boy, that hip-hop is much more about form than content.

Mat Herron is LEO’s Music Editor, and can’t write a rhyme to save his life. E-mail mherron@leoweekly.com