Word and Beat Join for Hip Hop Show
Last weekend marked the successful mounting of The Word ’n’ the Beat, a festival devoted to the exploration of the roles hip hop can have in theater. Events were held Thursday through Sunday in the Little Theater. The festival was put on by the Theater Collective, a new group of students led by Caroline Jackson-Smith, who is part of the theater and African American studies departments at Oberlin.
On Thursday and Friday night, the group presented a program of student works, a mixture of plays, poetry, spoken word and music. On Saturday, Oakland, California-based performance artist and battle flutist (he plays flute and beatboxes at the same time) Tim Barsky performed. Sunday featured readings of works by two emerging playwrights, Amy Evans, OC ’96, and Eisa Davis. In all the works, the influence of the hip hop aesthetic was visible, either in content or in structure, provoking the question of how the people involved view hip hop.
“One of its roles has been to make social commentary,” said Jackson-Smith on the content of hip-hop. “African-American art forms always have a twin access of a love of rhythm, language and beat, and a sight of critique of the culture around it. It was interesting how many of the pieces were grounded in an awareness of current events. It uplifted me that so many people are trying to connect to how they can see and understand and affect change in a lot of troubled aspects of contemporary life.”
Poet Mary Heglar was struck that Hurricane Katrina occurred only one day after the 50th anniversary of the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi. A collaboration between Heglar and several other group members explored the parallels between the two events. Evans’s play on Sunday portrayed the grim world of Marine Corps recruiting officers. Junior Daphnée Jean-François presented pieces on the child slave trade in Haiti and on, as she put it, “the whoredom of Africa.”
“To me, hip hop is the voice that blacks are allowed to speak with. We’ve been silenced for so long. It’s taken us such a long time before we were able to find a way to not just speak and be heard, but to be listened to,” she said.
As junior Baraka Noel explained in an original work, “Hip hop is my religion.”
Structurally, hip hop’s influence could be seen in the work of Barsky, who has worked to create a unique blend of hip hop, theater, storytelling and flute playing. It was also very clear in Davis’ play “Angela’s Mixtape,” an autobiographical work about the quest for identity in the context of one’s family history. Davis’ aunt, Angela Davis, was an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement.
The play mixed song with spoken dialogue to give a better sense of its cultural context. It also moved quickly between sections, each with an announced title, creating the impression that an invisible DJ was in control.
The festival was mounted as a class taken for credit. Jackson-Smith formed the collective at the beginning of the year. Some of the work the group did was an extension of work that came out of the professor’s African-American drama class last spring.
Jackson-Smith knew early on that she wanted the students to be involved on every level of the production. Beyond writing and performing, students were involved with publicity work, fundraising and many other things.
Hanging over the festival was the presence of August Wilson, the famous African-American playwright who passed away this fall. Wilson had been an important figure in the lives of many of the people involved, and each performance during the weekend began with a tribute to him.
“He was a prophet,” Noel said. “He successfully accomplished what I hope to do as an artist, which is being able to create work that speaks honestly from a personal base, but also can create real change in the world. He did it. He’s the voice of a generation.”
Honesty was an important theme throughout the festival. It was a very clear preoccupation in “Angela’s Mixtape,” and penetrated many of the other works as well.
“Truth is the most important element in writing,” Jean-François said. “If it’s not your true voice, then nobody will understand you.”
Next semester will probably see more excursions into the field of hip hop
theater. Noel is planning to mount a one-man show. Also, Justin Emeka, OC
’95, will be guest-teaching the spring Black Arts Workshop. Emeka was
involved as a student in Jackson-Smith’s prototype for The Word
’n’ the Beat, an event called Feeling the Blues. While
teaching here, he will probably try to mount some hip hop-related events.