Imagine Shakespeare’s audience in the pit of the Globe Theater — jeering, guffawing, mere catcalling roustabouts, disdained by the aristocrats in the balconies. The Bard kept their attention by lacing the more serious parts of the drama with show-off pratfalls, bawdy word play, saucy innuendoes, rhymes, and rhythms.
Of such is the food for hip-hop artists, according to Keith Baker and Donald Byrd, who co-direct a decidedly urban production of William Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night” at the intimate, 300-seat Bristol Riverside Theater (BRT), now in previews and opening on Thursday, February 12. Entitled “What You Will,” it runs through Sunday, March 1. Justin Ellington, nephew of Duke Ellington, is composing music for the play, including the seven songs that Shakespeare wrote for it, and there will be a hip-hop violinist, Claudia Pellegrini.
Older people are likely to say they don’t understand hip-hop, and younger people, the post rock and roll generation, are likely to say they don’t understand plays that are more than 400 years old. But Byrd, a noted choreographer who has a Seattle-based dance company, and Baker, BRT’s artistic director, aim to bridge the generation gap that threatens the health of American theater. Their goal is to bring these disparate audiences together with this production.
“We started out asking what a lot of people are asking right now,” says Byrd, “whether there is a relationship between the way Elizabethan theater used the language, and the way the language is used in hip-hop.” Shakespeare — when it’s done right — is charged with vigor and action, while classic hip-hop, says Byrd, “has to do with rhythm, beat, clothes, DJ-ing rappers, and break dancing.”
Rooted in West African and Jamaican rhythms, rapping and hip-hop emerged in the Bronx in the late 1970s and became popular in the ’80s. The idea of DJs making music, equipped with two turntables and a mike, spread around the world in the ’90s and exploded when YouTube came along.
“Rappers invent words, change the meaning of words, in a very spontaneous and improvisational way, and are extremely energetic — and all this applies to Shakespeare,” says Baker. “He bent, turned, and cajoled language to his own uses. He invented much of the English we now use. Nothing was sacred to him. Boredom was the devil, and he used language to hold onto the imagination of his audience in a way unheard of before him.”
Rap glorified the urban style, and along with that came the popularity of basketball, which Byrd says has replaced football as America’s premiere sporting event. “Basketball,” he says, “is an extension of the hip hop sense — its speed, rhythm, and bravura movement.”
Basketball itself comes into play in “What You Will,” in the character of the romantic lead, Duke Orsino, who is in love with Olivia. In the classic version Orsino, dressed as Elizabethan royalty, opens the play with that very famous line, “If music be the food for love, play on.” In the BRT version, where basketball is the metaphor for glamour, Orsino is a basketball star — elegant, beautiful, coordinated, and sexy — who thinks with a ball in his hand, dribbling to punctuate the verse.
Both courts, Orsino’s and Olivia’s, are hip-hop realms, where courtiers are rappers — in their rhythms, their body language, and their demeanor. Instead of dueling with swords, they compete with the manly art of break dancing. Gabriel “Kwik Step” Dionisio, a professional break dancer, has been cast as one of Orsino’s courtiers. “Dance is used throughout the production as a commodity,” says Baker.
When the shipwrecked Viola shows up in Orsino’s court, dressed as a man so she can look for her brother, she must swagger like a rapper — and break dance.
Yet not all the lines are spoken as raps. “We found that the hip-hop rap and the Shakespeare float in and out of each other,” says Baker. “We have times when everything is rapped. But one character never raps.” That would be Malvolio, the puritanically righteous steward of Olivia’s household, so pompous that he is the butt of everyone’s jokes.
Rap can be aggressive, violent, and hurtful, but Shakespeare’s rap is nothing like that, nothing like gangsta rap, says Baker. Shakespeare played on the bawdy edge of things rather than the aggressive political edge. “He had to survive, and he was writing for the common people. Shakespeare is not demeaning to women the way gangsta rap is. It is entertaining, playful, and bawdy, but it never turns into something hurtful,” says Baker.
Purists may decry contemporary versions of Shakespeare. Nevertheless, frustrated English teachers are fond of using hip-hop versions of Shakespeare’s songs to tease interest from their bored students. Young thespians have been producing their own hip-hop versions of Shakespeare — telling the story in an understandable way but not using the original script. Baker and Byrd claim they are different. They know of no other hip-hop production where Shakespeare’s actual words were used. “Shakespeare as the 16th century rap artist — no one has tried to do what we are doing,” says Baker.
Baker grew up in Florida, where his mother was an opera singer. He trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse, Juilliard, and the University of Freiberg. In addition to being a director of more than 250 productions, he is a composer, conductor, musician, and singer. He served as artistic director of the Florida Repertory Theater and the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, and he both directs and acts at Bristol Riverside.
“Over the last two years Keith and I figured out that we work very similarly,” says Byrd, who has created more than 80 works, including dances for the Alvin Ailey and Philadanco troupes and the well-known Harlem Nutcracker. Most recently he choreographed Motown hits for the Joffrey Ballet and for the Tony-nominated musical “The Color Purple.” He and Baker co-direct everything in “What You Will” — the actors, movement, and music. “The only rule we have is that we don’t disagree in front of the actors.”
Byrd grew up in Clearwater, Florida, and was raised by his grandparents in a house across from where the Phillies trained. He laughs that he choreographs lots of “baseball slides” that are hard for dancers to do. “My primary interest as a kid was classical music, and I was actually the first black kid to go to All States (a competitive orchestra). He took his first serious dance lessons, tap, at age 14, then studied dance as a student at Yale and Tufts, followed by training at the Alvin Ailey school and spending a season dancing with Twyla Tharp’s company.
“With Twyla, I learned a lot about what I would not do. For some choreographers, the dancer has to be able to do everything that you want them to do, right away. If you can’t do it, you’re done. I decided, after working with her, that if I thought a dancer was talented and I hired her, I would do everything I could to help her succeed. If someone is willing, they can’t say they weren’t given an opportunity.”
Byrd had a dance company in New York until 2001, but when he saw the Twin Towers go down just blocks from where he lived, he decided to leave town. In Seattle he founded the Spectrum Dance Theater the following year, and he is content to be an expatriate of sorts. “In New York you spend a lot of time spinning your wheels. But when you live there, the thought of leaving seems like the most horrible thing.”
On the west coast, he says he feels very productive. “Because there isn’t so much urban activity, I am really clear about what I am doing and how much time I spend doing it.”
Smaller is also better when it comes to being in a community. “In New York you don’t really have a chance to develop a general relationship with a general community. You can develop a relationship with the arts consumers and the funders, and you have one or two encounters with them a year. Now I am always engaged in contributing to the community. In a place like Seattle you get to present a season of work in the community, and you can see the impact you are having.”
Spectrum Dance Theater performed at Bristol Riverside last month, and Byrd challenged the audience with brainy, abstract choreography. Now he has challenged the talented Bristol Riverside actors, who, he says, are not accustomed to doing lots of physical activity and talking at the same time. “I have them engaged in activities — they are dancing and talking, or playing basketball and talking, and it has to feel natural.” He talks them through the process. “We might take two hours to work through something that is on the stage for a minute.”
The January dance concert, which served as a “walk up” to “What You Will,” drew a diverse audience — half white, half black, half young, half old — that looked like the audience for a high school musical, not for a prestigious legitimate theater, and certainly not for a Shakespeare play.
“Now our task is to keep this going forward and build that community, that diversity,” says Baker. “‘What You Will’ is going to do that.”
What You Will, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Wednesday, February 11, 8 p.m., preview; Thursday, February 12, 8 p.m., opening night. World premiere of an urban adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, “Twelfth Night.” Created by Keith Baker and Donald Byrd. Music by Justin Ellington. Through Sunday, March 1. $37. 215-785-0100 www.brtstage.org.