Last year, MCA audiences were Hop-Fu fighting right along with turntable rival DJs Excess and IKL, dazzled by rhythmic raconteur Will Power and his solo show “Flow” and floored by the breakdance-ballet fusion techniques of Montreal’s Rubberbanddance Group. Is it any surprise that Chicago’s first ever Hip-Hop Theater Festival set record-breaking attendance numbers at the Museum of Contemporary Art?
But if you still think “Hip-Hop Theater” is only about “DJing,” “B-boying,” “MCing” or “graffiti,” some of the more recognizable hip-hop elements acknowledged by old school hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc in his fascinating forward to journalist Jeff Chang’s seminal 2005 book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” think again. As this year’s two theatrical centerpieces prove, HHTF artists are returning to storytelling basics and an emphasis on the text, highlighting substance as well as style to tell their topical and sobering stories.
“Coverage on the conflict from a hip-hop perspective” is how well-known performance poet Jerry Quickley—self-proclaimed “B-boy in Baghdad”—has been described for his solo shows and journalistic reporting work for KPFK Radio Pacifica in Los Angeles. Indeed, there’s no denying the power of the prose in “Live from the Front,” Quickley’s take on his personal experiences in Iraq during the early stages of post-9/11 American military action. Describing the night of the first bombings: “Baghdad is unstrung in a corset of sound. Murder and chaos are concussive. They don’t just shout in your face they grab you by the collarbone and blow into it. The tune is so familiar. Allah retreats into the Euphrates as Jesus shapers cluster bombs.” Also buoyed by a gently satirical wit—the short section about his Iraqi chaperone’s emotional response to a Celine Dion song deservedly gets one of the evening’s biggest laughs—the performance is memorable for the understated authority with which Quickley delivers his rhythmic reportage. Comfortably ensconced behind his desk with notes neatly laid out in front, and with only a few bottles of water to get him through the marathon ninety minutes of exposition, Quickley may very well be a street-smart Spalding Gray for the hip-hop generation, a performance artist quietly eschewing sentimentality yet inviting existential examination of the self in the craziest of places.
There are plenty of raw emotions—almost too much to sometimes bare—in performance artist and social activist Rha Goddess’ “Low,” her solo show charting one woman’s harrowing psychological journey from emotionally neglected child to clinically depressed adult. She’s famous for a vocal delivery known as “flowetry” (flow-e-tree), a style that combines hip-hop spoken-word consciousness and song. Whether stringing together a series of disturbingly image-rich sentences in a single breath or effortlessly vacillating between primal screams and whispered confession, Goddess attacks her dialogue’s rhythmically tricky linguistic hurdles with the élan of a verbal gymnast. With little more than that voice, a chair for a prop and an effective kaleidoscope of colored lighting, Goddess drives home the universal perils and pitfalls of low self-esteem, clinical depression and women today with an unstoppable energy and street style all her own.
Rounding out the festival are post-show talks, roundtables and local appearances by several Chicago artists and troupes including the Chicago Bears’ Brendan Ayanbadejo, South-Side star Rhymefest, Chicago breakdancer BraveMonk and Phaze II/Crosstown Crew and Congo Square Theater Company. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)