Bridging gaps within the art world, the Hip-Hop Theater Festival seeks to offer a new perspective on the performing arts
By Candice Norwood
On the 1970s streets of New York, crowds gathered to the sounds of rhythmic clapping and fast-paced rhymes. As b-boys, DJs and MCs entered the scene, spectators soon became captivated by these storytellers of urban life. Even when increasing numbers of people scrambled to purchase Doug E. Fresh and Kool Moe Dee mixtapes, no one knew the international phenomenon that hip-hop would become over the next 40 years.
From Kanye West to Somali-Canadian artist K’naan, the powerful, and often provocative genre of hip-hop touches individuals from all ethnicities and backgrounds. Despite these achievements, artists continuously strive to introduce more diverse ways of discussing hip-hop and urban culture. This was the primary goal of the founders of the Hip Hop Theater Festival (HHTF), an organization that fuses hip-hop and theater into productions that are showcased at multiple events throughout the year.
Though HHTF was started in New York in 2000, the event has also been held in Chicago, San Francisco and celebrated its 10th Anniversary in Washington, D.C. last month.
Kamilah Forbes, co-founder and artistic director for HHTF, has extensive experience in the theater world. In addition to graduating from Howard University with a BFA in Theatre, Forbes has also studied at the British-American Drama Academy and performed with the Washington Shakespeare Company. Despite her interests in the classics, Forbes has always seen a need for less traditional artistic expression.
“As a part of the theater community,” Forbes said. “I felt that there was a void as far as theaters, institutions or just gathering places for folks of my generation who were creating work that was timely to the younger generation. I just wanted to highlight the work that spoke to me and the kind of work I felt driven by.”
In 1997 Forbes began a new initiative entitled Rhyme Deferred, a unique play concept that gathered DJs, poets and dancers on one stage. This production laid the groundwork for HHTF. Each year the D.C. event takes place at venues all over the city and features upcoming as well as veteran artists in the community. This year’s events included an open mic night, a b-boy dance battle as well as a number of onstage performances.
One such performance was Word Becomes Flesh, a critically-acclaimed piece written and directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Through the use of live music, dance and poetry, the 12 acts of Word Becomes Flesh are presented as a series of letters from a young father-to-be to his unborn son. Dahlak Braithwaite, a performance artist and member of the Word Becomes Flesh cast, said that the spontaneous nature of the show’s creative process allowed him to really expand on his abilities as a performer. Braithwaite praised HHTF for connecting artists from many different backgrounds.
“[The Hip-Hop Theater Festival] bridges the gap between hip-hop and theater,” Braithwaite said. “It allows hip-hop artists to expand into the realm of theater and allows those who may not know much about hip-hop to see it in a different light.”
Over the past 11 years, HHTF has grown from a three-day event to seven days in D.C. and three weeks in New York. It features over 400 artists from numerous countries. Forbes said that she and the HHTF team hope to bring wider recognition to the hip-hop culture and to highlight the issues presented in the various artistic works.
Writer and performer, Radha Blank has similar intentions with her play SEED, about a social workers’ confrontation with her past after a gifted 10-year-old boy enters her life. After a successful workshop production during both the New York and D.C. festivals, the full-length premiere of SEED will take place in New York beginning next month.
“I don’t want to put a particular message out there,” Blank said of SEED. “I want people to reflect on their roles in society and how we impact individuals like the characters in [SEED] … Theater on some level has become a very commercial business and it gets harder for distinct voices to come out and be heard. The festival allows a large audience to become acquainted with different kinds of artists and texts that they might otherwise not get to experience.”