“But hear this lie, more true than truth from my very lips
T’was an officer of “peace” that waged war on our warrior of light.
How this brutality came to a fatality one night, that is the question.”
Show of hands if you thought this was Shakespeare. Of course, it’s not written in iambic pentameter, but it sure sounds like Will. These lines are actually from Deep Azure, a spoken word theater piece by Chadwick Boseman. Deep Azure is one of the pieces in Daniel Banks’ anthology Say Word! Voices from Hip Hop Theater, an homage to artists whose lines bear as much weight, history, and social context as any in one of the Bard’s anthologies. Banks begins with a condensed acknowledgment of the roots of Hip Hop, and explains that understanding Hip Hop as a solely musical genre is a mistake: “Hip Hop is a global, multiethnic, grassroots youth culture committed to social justice and self-expression through specific modes of expression.” His introduction reads like an anthology itself, and he clarifies that power houses like Gil Scott-Heron and ntozake shange are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to truly acknowledging those who have contributed to the nebulous idea of Hip Hop theater. Banks presents the anthology as a sampling of excellent work that will entice the reader to explore the genre further, and not a cut and dry description of what does and does not belong in a specific category. Indeed, Hip Hop itself is not an exclusive category, because, as Banks points out, “Hip Hop Theater did not just appear- it is the inevitable product of intersectional histories. [...] Hip Hop Theater inherited Djeliya/Orature as a method of sustenance and sustainability from its ancestral cultures.”
Much has been said about misogyny in Hip Hop (and way less has been said about misogyny in Indie music sung by white dudes), but you won’t find Tip Drill on these pages. This collection specifically addresses and highlights the role of women and men who write theater pieces to tell painful, beautiful, interesting, challenging stories, not those who capitalize on exploitative, violent images.
For example, my favorite play in the collection was Goddess City, a collaboration by Abiola Abrams and Antoy Grant. Three goddesses descend to earth and can only re-ascend when they remember their true worth. It is an analogy of the struggle of women of color to remember their value despite the negative messages with which they are bombarded. It is a piece of Spoken Word theater, and, like all theater lives not really on the page but in the space between what the writers write, the actors deliver, and the audience believes. It’s difficult to read theater to yourself, without those other two elements, but this piece reads easily like a conversation between three well-spoken, musical, intelligent friends, so it is easier to imagine what it might sound like with the power of, say, Staceyann Chin delivering it.
Testifying through story telling is as old as humankind, but Hip Hop Theater does speak of a certain population, at a certain time, in a certain place, and as such it is essential to the larger story of the United States. The plays in this anthology do not belong to one group, though, because the defining characteristic of Hip Hop Theater is to bridge different groups and smudge the boundaries instead of enforcing them. The best part about this anthology is that it is only the beginning, because Hip Hop Theater lives in communities, and reading others’ stories is the easy part. If you dare, get up and tell your own.