Not-so-crazy Rhythm

I have been neither fan nor foe of hip-hop. Most of my limited experience with the music has been filtered through the scrim of a good 15 years' worth of near-hysterical mass media scrutiny. I have listened to it as "a cultural phenomenon" or "a social expression" rather than as an art form that, at its best, can transcend the particulars of the big-city black experience and touch a craving for rhythm and wordplay whose origins lay in our collective consciousness. Watching Rhyme Deferred, a play with music by Washington, D.C.'s Hip Hop Theater Junction that has been imported by Soul Rep, I understand that I have allowed myself to be hoodwinked by all the press' controversy-stoking. It's not all our fault; journalism is here to explore conflict, and, as one pissed-off young man or woman after another started making millions in the '80s by commodifying their rage, these artists were happy to provoke and thus nurture an environment conducive to sales.

What the journalists and the big-name artists helped us lose, though, was that sense of hip-hop as another development in a heritage that overlaps with almost any other country or culture you can name. Some wiseacres have insisted that the universal addiction to rhythm can be traced to the comforting sound of our mothers' heartbeats as awareness stirs in the womb. This theory at first makes you want to roll your eyes. It ranks up there with the favorite college bromide that Shakespeare wrote to the beat of the heart (something that Rhyme Deferred, by the way, explores with a marvelous staccato reading from Romeo and Juliet). But when you pause and really ruminate, it does make sense. Whether you're talking hip-hop or punk or death metal or house or jazz or even the gooiest of love ballads by boy bands, we are simultaneously comforted and enlivened by syncopation. In the end, maybe music is the mother of us all.

Hip Hop Theater Junction's Rhyme Deferred was outlined and directed by Kamilah Forbes, but the company members developed plot, dialogue, and sounds through improv and rehearsal. I don't know what their D.C. digs look like, but they have taken to the small, low-ceilinged Undermain basement space for their two-week run as though they were a resident company accustomed to developing new works there. In a way, I'm glad I got to see this show performed at a venue that has for years trained me to expect and experience nontraditional and confrontational fare. There are moments when I omitted the phrases "hip-hop" and "rap" from my head--with all their specific contemporary musical and political connotations--and was thrilled to discover how all the word repetition and mouth-made syncopation delivered by these utterly in-synch performers was interchangeable with avant-garde theater. In this show, a very loose retelling of the Old Testament's Cain and Abel tragedy, it also became apparent that one complaint many people have about rap concerts--that what was intricate and sophisticated in the recording studio comes out a congealed mess of bleating braggadocio onstage--might be solved with another stage in the genre's evolution. Dylan got famous (or, at the time, infamous) for turning folk-electric at the Newport Folk Festival. How about some major hip-hop artists going acoustic? Hip Hop Theater Junction may have already led the way as they prove gentle humor and mournfulness and tenderness can be even more affecting without the inflated sounds from those Godzilla-like speakers.

Oberon KA Adjepong and Jabari Exum co-star as, respectively, Suga Kain and Gabe, brothers with a passion for hip-hop but divergent ways of expressing it. Suga Kain has become a multimillion seller who struts around with a gold dollar-sign necklace pendant and a habit of referring to himself as "invincible." Gabe, the younger, is shy and still works in a record store, scribbling his rhymes in a raggedy notebook and repeating them mostly inside the confines of his bedroom. It turns out that Suga Kain is anything but his self-styled description. His record company issues repeated warnings that he must "find a new sound," or he'll be dropped. His boastful, rooster-crow brand of rap has run its course on the charts. Like Orpheus with his lyre, Suga Kain descends into an urban underworld where a supernatural being named Herc (Chad Boseman) suggests that the next hip-hop revolution lies undiscovered in his brother's notebook. How they go about getting it, and what happens as a result, is embroidered with dandy flourishes of break dancing, scratching, and, of course, some passionate rhyming.

For everyone who's afraid of hip-hop (and I suspect there are quite a few theater patrons who fall into this category, never guessing how much the two art forms could have in common), Rhyme Deferred is mandatory. If you have ever enjoyed stagings of Gertrude Stein or the more deliberately nonsensical works of Beckett or Ionesco, you will not be a stranger to the incantations performed here. And you just might learn you've shortchanged yourself and hip-hop by not investigating it deeply enough. In many ways, director Kamilah Forbes and her prodigiously multitalented crew make the same point I did a bit earlier in this column. There is a vast underground of subtle artistry informed by genuine legacy that has been vitiated by the superstars who are interested in little more than cheap public incitement. There are alternatives to the bluster of Puff Daddy and Eminem; that they prove more thoughtful and maintain the groove is still a revelation to many people.

I got ahead of myself and mentioned Eugene Ionesco, but having seen Rhyme Deferred and The Bald Soprano at 11th Street Theatre Project consecutively, the power of word and phrase reiteration in what would seem to be two completely different species of theatrical animal is upheld. I don't want to stretch the comparison till it snaps, but the way Ionesco's legendary "anti-play" dissolves into a series of non sequiturs and clichés tossed back and forth between a pair of married couples reminded me vaguely of the exchanges among Hip Hop Theater Junction members. After that, Ionesco's piece closes with the same banal lines about a good English dinner with which it opens. But the playwright wants to dismantle communication, prove how phony and fruitless it too often is, rather than forge a new method of relating.

Ionesco will probably be forever paired with Samuell Beckett inside the consciousness of world theater, but he reportedly liked people. He was certainly a passionate anti-totalitarian (specifically, anti-communist) spokesman; he forsook his native Romania as a young man and often attacked the brutality of its dictator from France. Ionesco comedies--which were Monty Python before Monty Python was cool, or even created, for that matter--seek to make fun of the artificial barriers people construct between one another. Director Lisa Cotie has coached her cast to get the crisp timing right, although the material itself can grow wearisome. At just short of 90 minutes, this exercise on whether ostensibly "close" individuals really know each other can start to feel like a captor is trying to break you down as part of some programming tactic. Yet most of the performers are spry enough to keep us alert. They also don't make the mistake that many casts and directors do with Ionesco: trying to find his Beckettian core of despair. Mr. Smith (Kevin Grammer) and Mrs. Smith (Andi Allen) find their idyllic postprandial relaxation invaded by another couple, Mr. Martin (Tom Eppler) and Mrs. Martin (Erin McGrew), who remember by adding up the coincidences--same children, same apartment, same bed--that they are also married. Throw in a fireman (Donald McDonald) eager to extinguish and a maid (Holly Martin) eager to confuse, and you have professionally produced existential wackiness. Grammer and Martin don't quite immerse themselves in the face-offs with as much soldierly self-effacement that the other four do, but they're not fatal to Ionesco's "anti-play" motives.

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Jimmy Fowler