Rickerby Hinds’ Hip-Hop Theater Aesthetics
(Cross-posted from The UC Humanities Forum.)
I have some catching up to do from last quarter, so I’ll hopefully get my back(b)log out of the way within a week. This will be a two-part recap of my impressions from the December 6-7 visit to UCSB by Hip Hop Theater Artist Rickerby Hinds, Professor of Playwriting in UC Riverside’s Department of Theatre. Professor Hinds’ visit, hosted by the Department of English’s Hemispheric South/s Research Initiative, included a performance of his play “Dreamscape” and two Hip-Hop Theatre workshops, one of which I had the good fortune to attend. This entry will focus on the play itself.
Professor Hinds explained in his workshop that hip-hop theater replaces Aristotelian building blocks of drama with elements drawn from hip-hop culture: DJ (sound), MC (words), breakdance (movement), graffiti (image), community (knowledge). “Dreamscape” was my first experience with the genre. The play explores the 1998 death of 19-year-old African American Tyisha Miller, who was shot twelve times by four Riverside police officers while sleeping in her car with a loaded gun in her lap. The performance was a duet between Rhaechyl Walker, who took the stage as Myeisha Mills, and John Merchant, a professional beatboxer who served as the dispatcher, police officer, and coroner in the story. Organized according to the 12 bullets that struck Mills’/Miller’s body, a morbidly beautiful yet appropriate logic for such a work, the play celebrates and mourns a life tragically cut short. Merchant, who performs under the name “Faahz,” introduces each bullet with a beatboxing mix drawn from 90′s hip-hop and rap hits, then narrates the bullet’s trajectory and damage caused, artfully interrupting himself with the glitches and tweaks of his musical style. Walker dances to the beat, reenacting the trauma of a single wound, and then proceeds with a monologue triggered by the part of the body hit by that particular bullet.
Hinds draws upon Miller’s autopsy for the gruesome details, curating the nonfatal bullet wounds first in order to give the audience a chance to share in Mills’ relief and suspense over where the next bullet would strike. Her stories were light-hearted and touching, a stark contrast to the graphic descriptions of shattered bones given by Merchant as the coroner. The choreography between Walker and Merchant is tense and extremely powerful – as officer and coroner, Merchant has control over Walker’s body in ways that are masterfully played out onstage. He plays puppetmaster to Mills’ movements, shooting her with invisible guns, controlling her with beats and spinning her body around as the coroner draws attention to different wounds. The physical contrast between the two underscore this relationship, with Merchant’s physical bulk and bass voice dwarfing Walker’s smaller frame and defiant timbre. I was really struck by the gendered dynamic here, which I felt displaced some of the racial tension that characterized the original conflict: though Merchant is a Black performer, of the four cops involved in the Miller shooting, three were white and one Latino.
For me, this modified the questions of power at stake in the play, and brought out the unintentional side effects of what one might call colorblind casting. To be fair (and clear), the critique of racism is central to the production, from promotional materials always invoking Tyisha Miller to Merchant’s incorporation of anti-police anthems within the performance. I can’t imagine anyone else besides Merchant in the role; his beatboxing and grave medical voice were so integral to the play, and the hip-hop ballet duet was too captivating to be messed up by a third. Yet I still couldn’t help but wonder what the impact on the audience would have been to see the play’s hero shot by multiple white men instead of a single Black one. Even so, I was thrilled by the performance and challenged to understand the complicated ways in which personal and systemic forces were tangled up in this tragedy. Hinds was generous to the police officers without shielding them from culpability, and the coroner’s unblinking reports, punctuated by violent hip-hop lyrics, implicated all those abstract institutions that never flinch as innocent Black bodies pile up. At times, the play felt like a strong condemnation of the laws of physics themselves. Myeisha/Tyisha shouldn’t have died that night, but “Dreamscape” leaves you at a loss for deciding what moment could have prevented her death. Even the nonfatal bullets – one after the other summoning up and shattering Myeisha’s memories of dance, of brushes with fame, of celebrity crushes – eventually seemed too much for a young body to bear. “Dreamscape” was dream and nightmare wrapped into one, a bittersweet nostalgic trip in the company a girl whose life is flashing before her eyes.
I’m going to leave it here for now, because I think Hinds’ play should stand on its own as an object of contemplation. Stay tuned for my thoughts about interactivity and hip-hop theater in Part 2 of the Backblog.
Professor Hinds’ visit was hosted by the UCSB Department of English Hemispheric South/s Research Initiative, and co-sponsored by the College of Letters and Science Honors Program, the Black Performance Series, the Department of Black Studies, and the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies.