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Straight Outta Broadway

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Most obviously, the show evinces a deep anxiety about its audience, sometimes overexplaining itself. A long glossary of Greek and hip-hop terms in the program would be funny if it didn’t so poignantly reveal the cultural chasm between the Broadway audience (largely rich, old, white) and the hip-hop audience (less of all three). It’s a maddening chicken-and-egg problem—if you stage it, will they come?—and one that even serious outreach is going to have a tough time solving. If Cam’ron fans find their way to the theater, it may only be as far uptown as the more adventurous and less expensive NYTW or the Public (and oh, how Joe Papp would have loved Will Power).

The limits of Power’s audience, and his taste for old-school rhymes, have led him to a clear, unadorned style. In that sense, The Seven only begins to realize the potential of hip-hop onstage. When someone figures out how to get more explosive, sophisticated rap onstage, we’ll see the true artistic breakthrough. The focused consciousness of Talib Kweli, the hilarious and surreal antics of MF Doom (last heard rapping with characters from the Cartoon Network), or a re-reunited Wu-Tang Clan: In a theater starved for style, any of these rappers would be a feast.

For sheer virtuosity and outsize theatricality, the real find would be a poet in the line of the late great Notorious B.I.G. No one has matched his knack for dense multiple rhymes, his surprising shifts in tempo, his uncanny ability to make a lyric ride a beat—all varieties of the verbal fireworks that theater audiences and hip-hop heads alike savor. Plenty of his violent, misogynist lyrics are indefensible; Biggie, like many of the most skilled and inventive rappers, calls to mind Shaw’s scorn for the “clumsy horseplay and butcherly rant” of Christopher Marlowe’s plays. Still imagine if a rapper with Biggie’s facility with words wanted to tell a longer, richer story, or if a playwright could make words do what Biggie made them do: There’s no telling what sort of hyperdrama might result. Some say it was Marlowe’s Tamburlaine—a play full of butcherly rant if ever there was one—that persuaded Shakespeare to take up his quill.

The Seven by Will Power.
New York Theatre Workshop. Through March 12.


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