Sunday, September 09, 2007

Till the Break of Dawn

In celebration of my birthday, some friends and I went to see a preview of the play Till the Break of Dawn written and directed by Danny Hoch, I'm a big fan of Danny's work both artistically and politically, and I had the privilege of hearing an earlier version of this work several years ago. When I found out that he was finally bringing the production to the stage this year around my birthday, I knew going to see it with a group of close friends who would appreciate it as much as I would would make for a fantastic evening. This was especially true to because -- and I'm proud to say that I knew and in some capacity have worked with some members of the cast including Jaymes Jorsling, pattydukes and Flaco Navaja as well as Danny. What a joy to be able to support and be inspired by such talented folks who are following their artistic while staying true to their views of social justice.

For those of you who don't know, Danny Hoch is a trailblazer in the world of theater due to his consistent efforts to create stage productions that resonate with the hip hop generation i.e. hip hop theatre. Among many accomplishments and contributions, he is the founder of The Hip Hop Theater Festival whose vision is at once simple yet profound: to tell the untold stories of the Hip-Hop Generation. Now that's pretty downright revolutionary when you consider several things. One, despite the fact that for as long as there have been humans, there has been some form of theater, it should yet has failed to be the most democratic of the arts. Two b-boys battling it out on a street corner for a spontaneous audience is not only hip hop, at its essence, it is also theater. We don't recognize that, however, because with the institutionalization of theater has also come much its un-democratization. Whether we consider ourselves theater buffs or not, we pretty much buy into the limited notion that theater is a live performance of drama for which you pay to see in a darkened hall with a roomful of strangers.

With that it is no surprise that, two, theater in the U.S. has evolved into and largely remains a "luxury" of the White middle class. Is this how it necessarily has to be given that it we can produce theater on a street corner? No, but because of how theater is perceived, this is mostly how it stays like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let me put it this way. When a teacher in the 'hood decides to take her class on a field trip, she is more likely to take them to the nearby multiplex to see, say, the latest Hollywood rendition of a Shakespearean play (e.g. Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet or Tim Blake Nelson's O) than to a Manhattan theatre. That would be the case even if there was a twenty-five seat makeshift theatre in the basement of a community center in Washington Heights where an all-Dominican cast was offering its updated version of Hamlet. Theater that tells stories that veer from the topic of White middle-class angst in its multiple variations remain both underrepresented and marginalized.

And that leads me to three point A and B as to why the concept of using theatre to tell the stories of the hip hop generation is a revolutionary endeavor. Ironically, almost as quickly as the global commodification of rap music popularized hip hop worldwide as a vehicle that gave visibility to the underrepresented and marginalized, it was forgotten that hip hop (a) largely began as a form of cultural resistance and, therefore, (b) was, is and can continue to take forms other than rap music. In other words, many of its biggest fans have lost sight -- if they ever even recognized - that rap music is not the only way hip hop tells stories. If they have never been educated to the power of theater, obviously they would not understand that there can exist such a thing as hip hop theatre (and it not being Scarface: The Broadway Musical. Don't let me get started on that. Thanks to last night, I'm in a great mood and would like to preserve it)

Which brings me back to Till the Break of Dawn, Danny Hoch's latest act of cultural resistance through hip hop theater. Gibran, a young brother who aspires to use hip hop to organize communities worldwide via the internet, plans a trip to Cuba with his multicultural group of activist friends to attend the island's annual Hip Hop Festival. To many activists, Cuba is upheld to be a socialist utopia where, among other things, literacy abounds and racism is nonexistent. Gibran and his crew are eager to network with hip hop heads from around the world at the festival and export la revolucion across the globe including the United States. They even aspire to politicize Big Miff, a Fat Joesque gangster rapper who has been convinced to go and perform.

Once in Havana, however, they quickly learn that their idealistic perception are only partially correct. The sociopolitical reality of being a communist nation under the embargo of a capitalist world power forces the activists' sincere yet simplistic ideas of what it takes to make meaningful social change to undergo dramatic complication. Part of that necessary complication is the painful realization of the paradox inherent in being an American citizen no matter how much they may rage against the policies of the U.S. government, both domestic and international. That is, despite the repression they may experience in the United States, they still remain and are perceived by the global community as the undeservingly privileged citizens of a world empire.

There are no sacred cows in Till the Break of Dawn which is why at many moments it is laugh-out-loud funny. And yet as the playwright, Danny offers tremendous compassion and even empathy along with the unapologetic critique of hip hop activism which in many ways has spawned a culture of its own. We especially see it in characters such as Hector, a charismatic Boricua nationalist whose militancy can be endearing and even infectious at one moment and yet the next can blind him to the humanity of others -- even willingly potential allies whose appearance or choices do not readily fit his political ideals. If you now or have ever considered yourself an activist of any stripe, you have met Hector. Shit, if you're honest with yourself, you've been Hector.

Till the Break of Dawn is a must-see for many different audiences. It's a loving tug on the coattails of hip hop activists who desperately need to rethink how to continue The Work in a post 9-11 era. The play is evidence for the skeptics who doubt there are any people in hip hop who genuinely use the culture as tool for social change. It is "edutainment" for all the hip hop heads who think that going to the theater is something that only old, White folks with money do, and it's inspiration to cultural activists across forms of creative expression trying to marry their art and politics. Finally, it's imperative that theater buffs -- especially those old, White folks with money -- to check out Till the Break of Dawn for no other reason than to familiarize themselves with the cutting-edge content and aesthetic that hip hop brings to their beloved hobby, keeping it alive and relevant.

The play runs from September 13th through October 21st at the Abron Arts Center and tickets can be purchased online at the Culture Project.

No comments: