Now that the pioneers of hip hop are aging, and some prematurely passing due to poor health and a lack of funds for proper medical care, it is crucial to take note of the various ways subsequent [End Page 186] generations of hip hop “heads” keep the culture alive. For a culture dependent upon the power and vulnerable to the ephemerality of oral history, the affective and material import of the word cannot be overstated. Hip hop vernacular reflects the imperative: practitioners “can’t stop [and] won’t stop” developing the aesthetics, “keepin’ [hip hop culture] movin’,” “you feel me?”...“word up.” Both Playz from the Boom Box Galaxy: Theatre from the Hip Hop Generation, edited by Kim Euell and Robert Alexander, and Say Word! Voices from Hip Hop Theater, edited by Daniel Banks, offer readers and hip hop newcomers a historical perspective on hip hop culture’s aesthetic development from the streets to the stage.
Working against rhetoric claiming that “real” hip hop is dead — that is, nullified by commercialization — Euell and Alexander sample theatre works that deploy hip hop aesthetics to simultaneously perform utopic visions and present everyday material conditions. Knowing that the genre, now more than a decade old, is still not familiar to most theatergoers, they offer a genealogy of hip hop culture through the many forms “born from an apocalyptic landscape” — MCing, DJing, graffiti writing, b-boying, spoken word, and now...theatre (xiii). With this contextualization up front, readers are better equipped to consider how the nine plays — organized by theme: “ruminations on identity,” “cautionary tales,” and “transformationals” — fit, challenge, and expand hip hop as a cultural form.
“Ruminations on identity” is more than a collection of (semi)autobiographical works. Here, the playwrights’ internal struggles in regards to self-formation in and against institutionally imposed social roles take center stage. In The Evidence of Silence Broken (2003), Zell Miller III shuffles between characters at a rhythmic and breathless pace amidst walls covered in “brightly colored graffiti” to contemplate life, love, and politics (7). Cristal Chanelle Truscott deconstructs the “angry black woman” archetype in Peaches (2000) to the rhythm of a cappella songs and Negro spirituals, elaborating and excavating the diversity ensconced in a stereotype. Carl Hancock Rux performs a nonperformance, a refusal of an expected racialized masculinity, in The No Black Male Show (2000) — his response to the Whitney’s 1994 biennial Black Male Show.
“Cautionary tales” turns the volume down on the track of internal identity struggles and brings it up on external struggles with racism, sexism, and capitalism. Psalmayene 24’s play, Free Jujube Brown! (2002), utilizes “frenzied popping” dance movements and the click-clack sound of a spray paint can to change scenes of imprisonment to ones of transformation (125). Tommy Shepherd and Dan Wolf ’s Beatbox: A Raparetta (1995) is a tale of two brothers, rapped within “a 4/4 time signature” accompanied by a DJ or beatboxer, that challenges their community to “long to be,” to be long to a new life trajectory, one that does not end in violence (157). In her “kooky” creation, Death of a Ho (1997), Jake-Ann Jones equips Chocolate, an African American suicide survivor in her 30s, with a magical suitcase capable of granting three life-changing wishes (211). With each wish made, Chocolate succumbs to her materialistic, self-destructive desires and is literally haunted by the undead consequences (gangsta zombies) of her actions.
The plays in “transformationals” reflect on the “ruminations on identity” and heed the “cautionary tales.” Tackling the issue of paternity in the African American community, Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Word Becomes Flesh: Performed Letters from Father to Unborn Son (2003) delivers a freestyle, stream of consciousness in the text, complemented in the stage directions with West African and modern dance movements, demonstrating that the desire...