by Amrita Ramanan, Literary Manager
Two weeks ago while I was ushering for Hip Hop Theater Festival's presentation of Radha Blank's Seed (if you missed it in DC, check out the production at Classical Theater of Harlem in NYC in September), I managed a sneak in a couple minutes to chat with Hip Hop Theater Festival Artistic Director Kamilah Forbes. Kamilah and I first met in 2009 while working on a workshop reading of Psalmayene 24's Journey to the Door of No Return and since then I've had a huge artistic crush on her for her advocacy for hip hop theater and work on the festival. We briefly caught up before segwaying into a conversation about the partnership between the Hip Hop Theater Festival and Arena Stage that year, with Seed being workshopped and presented in Arena's Kogod Cradle, and how the partnership seemed like a natural fit: we were both celebrating anniversaries (60 years for us, 10 years for them) and exploring new terrain with our programming and spaces where the work would take place. That's when I remembered another potential piece of alignment David Dower had mentioned earlier during one of our staff meetings and there was no better time or person to ask. "Kamilah, is hip hop theater considered an indigenous theater form to America?"
As many of you know, the focus of Arena Stage for the past eleven season has been on the broad canvas of American theater, celebrating American voices and stories rooted in the American spirit. It's a belief Artistic Director Molly Smith has carried with her the moment she joined Arena Stage and continues to promote through the work she curates and directs, particularly with her vested interest in musical theatre. From the days of my theater history classes, I remember learning about the roots of contemporary musical theater in the American landscape, erupting in the 19th and 20th centuries through composers and writers George M. Cohen, Jerome Kern, the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, who innovatively cultivated the book musical with a cohesive plot, songs that moved the story forward, and spoken dialogue and dance. Unfortunately, my understanding of Hip Hop Theater had always been much more limited despite my interest in it after meeting Kamilah in 2009, and I realized that I lacked knowledge in its history and development. So when David Dower posed the question in our staff meeting of whether I knew if hip hop theater was an indigenous theater form to America, I had no support behind my assumption of yes and knew that I needed to explore this further.
Kamilah pointed me in the direction of Danny Hoch's Towards a Hip Hop Aesthetic: A Manifesto for the Hip Hop Arts Movement. In it I learned about how Danny investigated the question of what constitutes as hip hop theater when he was artistic director of the Hip Hop Theater Festival and how it's not a question that can be easily answered. Hip Hop Theater was described by Danny as fitting into "the realm of theatrical performance, and it must be by, about, and for the hip hop generation, participants in hip hop culture, or both." I read further to learn about hip hop growing as a response to social contexts throughout American History, such as "the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s, the turmoil of the militarized political movements, urban blight and the advent of Reaganomics, the digital age, an exploding prison population, epidemics of crack, guns, and AIDS."
I then picked up a copy of Total Choas: the art and aesthetics of hip hop by Jeff Chang, with an introduction that focuses on the distinction between hip hop and rap and also likened the movements' beginnings to the US around the late 60s. As I trekked through Jeff's "historical vectors" with contributions by Anthony Hamilton and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, it was evident that hip hop is still questioned as an art form (a similar note made in Danny's piece) by the mainstream and how adding the term theater provides a unique layer to how it's viewed, interpreted, or categorized. It made me curious about how hip hop seems to capture exactly how we talk about the American spirit at Arena - something that shouldn't be too defined and remains widespread, diverse, and evolving.
As I continue to go down the rabbit hole to a new world that's opened up to me, it's clear that hip hop theater definitely aligns with the broad canvas of American theater and hopefully will continue to align with Arena in the future.