I saw Rennie Harris perform Endangered Species (1992) in New York City’s Central Park under a canopied stage. Harris slipped and popped silhouetted in a round pool of red light looking more like animation than human being. Harris’ multidimensional caricature described lived experiences in a harsh and dismissive society fraught with genocide, suicide and fratricide. There was tragedy in each stance with Harris’ dreadlocks adding its fair share of meaning to the final move. This latest version performed at the Peacock in London 21 October 2003 added three figures and a shooter from the wings making the storytelling more literal. What was it about the extinction of Native Americans that revealed an element of self-destruction as well as the tyranny of their enemies? Black on Black killing also says a lot about self-destruction. With the three figures and the shooter the solo becomes mimetic of life emphasising one message within this solo. This new rendition did not transform Harris into a complex entity. Instead the message of the solo shrank and the added figures left no room for further contemplation. For me this choice made the ending a tad simplistic. This was the problem throughout the evening. The movement vocabulary, the vernacular that is hip hop, was intact and the skill of these performers is not disputed. As far as skilled athletes there is no argument that Harris’ dancers are incredible and gorgeous to boot. The compositional devices looked more like arrangements of space instead of manipulation to emphasize or support multiple experiences of the work. Harris’ ensemble work and creative caricatures in March of the Antmen turned into just so much fluff that was easily forgotten when the dancers did their thing in the final dance, Students of the Asphalt Jungle.
Harnessing the beast that is hip hop creativity can be a rough task making a choreographer’s compositional choices a difficult task. Harris though is definitely striding in the right direction. The creation of a theatre of hip hop that expresses poignant, thought provoking vignettes that illustrate the times and feelings we all share, ignore or simply do not see is much welcomed. There was inspiration a plenty in Harris Puremovement but perhaps more experimentation into how composition can assist noble intentions instead of becoming traffic control lies in the future.
On the other hand in London at the Lyric Studio, 23 October 2003 Benji Reid in his works, The Pugilist and 13 Mics presented a different kind of hip hop theatre. The composition here is deliberate, every move, every gesture, hands, head, eyes and limbs are shaped and chosen specifically for the intentions they will reveal. In The Pugilist Reid portrays two main characters: Barry, a boxer on the down side of his career, Goffa, his second and supporting characters that enrich the narration and punctuate the message of the work. Goffa has known Barry as triumphant luminary to this current facade of a man. Reid is offering a proverb, a metaphor to illustrate what becomes of a person who cherishes the accolades of success and forgets what makes a man who he is in the first place. What becomes of the man who loses bits of himself on the road to recognition? What is the value of recognition if the man is not true to himself and those he comes in contact with? Fleeting moments of glory do not make a life and a man is the sum of all his lived experiences, both negative and positive, collected along the way. It’s not what you get out of life, it’s what you put back; it’s how you live a life. Process and learning from the pitfalls are more valued than the products that may or may not come as a result of tempered labour. You don’t need a prize to know you are a winner. Goffa holds the mirror for Barry to find himself again. Not so much as the prize winning boxer as the person who believed enough in the goodness of those around him because he believed enough in himself.
Reid’s thought provoking performative tellings reveal the intricacies of his aesthetic. Reid is very much a purist with a credible, discriminate approach to his art. His work has always been on the edge but also quite phenomenal in its own right. True he is a hip hop veteran and European body-popping champion, but these accolades do not cover the enormity of his art. Reid is a preacher as well as a dancer, a dramatist as well as comic. Reid’s incredible physical facility is matched by his articulate oral delivery, popping lines and rhymes with as much fluency as his body popping makes him look more like an animated mechanical device than a human being.
In 13 mics Reid asks a question, “is hip hop dead”. Supported by Myke Wilson on the drums, Steve O Jay on bass, and Master Wong on the turntables, Reid positions himself behind, underneath or near any one of thirteen microphones positioned strategically around the performance space. Reid illustrates through eight characters that even with its myriad manifestations from gangsta rap to wiggas and pubescent wannabees to die hard purist, hip hop is still a viable, flourishing art form. Hip hop is the epitome of creativity that like Goffa in The Pugilist holds up a mirror to the cultures we all live in and cross. One of the characters Reid portrays is an old man speaking despite his drunken state delivering parables of streetwise astuteness. This character describes the roots and cultural interactions that spawned the legacy of hip hop. Where would we all be with out Negro spirituals, blues, jazz and now hip hop. Comments on the commodification, or is it the exploitation of the art and the fiery of feelings that profit from or witness the pillage of this intertextual cultural phenomenon etch each character’s monologue. Reid making his point that “hip hop is you and me” testifies through his characters that hip hop is a prolific art form with as many arresting, visceral, poignant dimensions as it has crevices of pointless, negative dribble. Reid’s physical metaphors and metonyms, call and response antics with the audience, story telling, pontificating, signifying, and embodiment of nuances that demarcate each lived experience he portrays, makes 13 mics an extraordinary work of theatre art.
THEA NERISSA BARNES