Straight Outta Broadway

Photo: Carol Rosegg/Coutresy of New York Theatre Workshop

Hip-hop can save the theater; I am not kidding. At a time when playwriting has grown timid, the musical is irrelevant, and young audiences quite understandably stay away, along comes a highly theatrical form of music that happens to be the planet’s dominant youth culture. Someone looking for a way out of theater’s current mess could scarcely dream of a more direct route.

Of course, to say hip-hop can save the day doesn’t mean it will. Already it has been around for a quarter century and registered barely a flicker on the New York theatrical radar. Whether its potential will ever be realized depends a great deal on what’s going on right now at New York Theatre Workshop, where the playwright Will Power has written a hip-hop adaptation of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. The critical response so far has been favorable. Still, even the play’s champions appear not to realize the full extent of what hip-hop and theater can do.

Power’s all-rhyming treatment of the story of Oedipus’ two cursed sons might seem an egregious break with tradition. (Aeschylus nowhere depicts Oedipus as a Caddy-driving seventies pimp, for example.) But in a more fundamental way, the approach makes perfect sense. The great Greek tragedies blended poetry and music. Chanted and sung, they continued a tradition of oral storytelling that stretched back through Homer. An Athenian audience would have been mightily confused by the woman with two turntables and a microphone, but not by a chorus reciting verses over a beat.

That hybrid nature—speech and song—is what makes hip-hop uniquely suited to the stage, so different from rock or even jazz. Although rappers once fought to be taken seriously as musicians, what seems vital now is that we take them seriously as poets. “Laffy Taffy” won’t knock “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” out of any syllabi, but the best tracks by the likes of Nas and the late Tupac Shakur have undeniable power and literary effect. Appreciating what hip-hop might do onstage requires appreciating what the sharpest rappers have already done.

In the Hudson Review three years ago, Dana Gioia cited rap as a leading factor in the resurgence of popular poetry in America. As oral verse, he wrote, rap is both novel and traditional, reversing a decades-old trend away from rhyme and narrative. Specifically, rappers favor accentual meter, a form that keeps the same number of strong beats, not the same number of total beats, in a line. This allows for shifts in tempo and extravagant syncopation—for flow.

Consider Eminem, who, before cooling off a couple of years ago, squeezed more success from his rhymes than almost anyone. His pseudo-biopic 8 Mile was sleepy until the ending, when his screen alter ego fought freestyle battles against various rappers—a climax achieved entirely through competing literary effects, through words. On his albums, he has pushed the limits of how rap can establish mood and sustain narrative. “Stan,” a four-minute song about a deranged fan, is one of the most popular short radio plays of all time. Even Seamus Heaney has applauded his “verbal energy.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find that quality around a theater these days. This is a strange moment for playwrights. For most of its history, the Western tradition has been essentially poetic. Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries wrote mainly in verse, as did Molière and Goethe. Only since Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw a century ago has prose been edging out formal poetry; only 50 years ago did changing fashion finish off the last-gasp verse dramas of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. That’s given plays a great deal of verisimilitude, of course, but it has all but eliminated the elevation, the heightened attention that verse creates, and the intrinsic pleasure of hearing poetry. Hip-hop, almost miraculously, could combine all the old power of verse and all the new appeal of pop.

The Seven begins to show how real hip-hop theater might look and sound. Though the music dips into funk, soul, and doo-wop, the actors keep a steady verbal beat throughout. Mostly this helps sustain momentum, but sometimes there’s a genuine dramatic payoff, as when one of Oedipus’ sons describes a nightmare about being choked by his father. The rhythm reinforces the finality of the family curse:

’Cause he got some hands squeezing his neck too
His daddy Laius makin’ my daddy face turn blue
And Laius gettin’ choked by his daddy, and he by his daddy
And all the mack daddys back to the beginning of time
Choking each other on the family line
And my daddy starts to look small
His curse just a piece of it all

Power’s show ultimately works, but he doesn’t make it look easy. All the obstacles to realizing hip-hop’s potential are evident here. It’s clear that Power and director Jo Bonney had to do plenty of searching to find a dozen performers who can act, sing, dance, and rap. Power has also described the near-impossible task of finding a co-composer (in Justin Ellington) who understood both hip-hop and theater, even though such gifted artists as Danny Hoch and Toni Blackman have been spreading the gospel for years.

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.

Will Power was born in Harlem, but only recently has he become an East Coast presence. He got his hip-hop in San Francisco, where he was raised in the Fillmore district, and his theater from summers in New York. After co-founding the theater-rap group Midnight Voices, Power wrote rap musicals before taking his breakout solo piece, The Gathering, all over the U.S. and Europe—a Sarah Jones for the West Coast. The Seven premiered in San Francisco in 2001, but the following year it closed out Danny Hoch’s New York Hip-Hop Theater Festival. Power has since moved here for good—another East Coast victory in the musical-theater throw-down.

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

Straight Outta Broadway