What is hip hop theater? It's easier for Danny Hoch, creator of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, to declare what the genre is not: "It's a huge misconception to think it means doing a rap-music version of A Midsummer Night's Dream," he wrote in an article for American Theater. It's also not the same as spoken-word pieces, which he calls "undirected, unchoreographed recited poetry." Despite these parameters, the former break dancer allows directors substantial leeway at his event, now in its second year in the Bay Area (and its fifth in New York). "Hip-hop theater must fit into the realm of theatrical performance," he wrote, "and it must be by, about and for the hip-hop generation."
From the looks of this year's lineup, that loose definition translates into equal parts music, dance, straightforward theater, and, yes, even spoken word. It's a dizzying array, a feeling heightened by the festival's habits of grouping excerpts from different productions into single shows and of using players from every imaginable genre: For each bard from Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry there's an actor stepping off a Broadway stage or a rapper checking the mike.
Wednesday's opening night sets the tone, with snippets from no fewer than five pieces (among them Culture Bandit, Stateless, and Free Jujube Brown!) capped by improvisational theater from Playback NYC, which uses dance, music, and storytelling to create scenes based on audience suggestions. Thursday's "Short Cuts: Hip-Hop Flips the Stage" starts with The OG and the B Boy before segueing into the Middle East with Live From the Front by war correspondent and poet Jerry Quickley, who dramatizes the peace movement in Baghdad that preceded the war; following that comes From Tel Aviv to Ramallah, in which "vocal magician" Yuri Lane reworks the biblical story of Abraham's sons Isaac and Ishmael in a panoply of Middle Eastern voices.
Admission is $15-20
The festival headliner gets a run of four nights to itself. Scourge, by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a Broadway veteran and three-time winner of San Francisco's Poetry Grand Slam, mixes hip hop, spoken word, dance, and Afro-Caribbean jazz to produce a "theatrical exorcism" exploring Haiti's turbulent past. The "Jack Ya Body Dance Series" also gets two nights, and for good reason: One of the groups featured in the show, the Black Messengers, allegedly created the famous "robot dance."
But the festival isn't just for audiences; it's also for participants. In an effort to improve theater access for those working in hip hop, the fest offers panel discussions and staged readings of local work in which performers can gain firsthand knowledge of how the genre gets to the stage. At Sunday's "Making It Happen," playwright Reg E. Gaines (Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk) and Jerry Quickley assist local groups in developing productions and allow audience members to watch the rehearsal process. For rappers looking toward Broadway, these are lessons you can't learn on the streets.