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Beats Per Millennium - Hip Horizons #1: You are now rockin' with the bard!

Hip Horizons #1: You are now rockin' with the bard!

by Kristin Denslow

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the first in a series of features on the many ways hip hop culture is exerting its presence on, and cross-breeding with, our larger society. It is easy for hip hop heads to become secluded in our little world of beats, rhymes, and life, wary of anything that looks commercial, but the truth is that hip hop has emerged as a global force that is used for everything from selling sneakers to allowing decidedly unhip politicians the opportunity to feel cool. At BPM it is our goal to not only offer extensive and entertaining coverage of rap music, but also to explore hip hop culture and its relevance and importance in today’s world. In volume one of this series Kristin Denslow reviews Funk it Up About Nothin’, The Q Brothers hip hop take on Shakespeare that headlined The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre this summer.


This past summer, the usually conservative Chicago Shakespeare Theater produced a surprisingly progressive staging of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The new incarnation, titled Funk it Up About Nothin’, billed itself as “an ad-RAP-tation” of the classic and drew a crowd seemingly shaky on the Shakespeare, as well as unfamiliar with the world of hip-hop. I must preface my comments by admitting that I am far more Shakespeare than hip-hop, but my studies have led me to find interest in the common ground that the two genres create. The production of Funk it Up created an interesting space that was neither truly Shakespeare, nor truly hip-hop. Instead, the creators of Funk it Up develop a unique mash-up of the two genres, creating something truly original – and totally freakin’ fun.

The creators and directors of this production, the Q Brothers (also known as GQ and JQ), are two Chicago natives with a passion for bringing hip hop to new audiences, an act evidenced by their previous Shakespearian, hip-hoppian endeavor, The Bomb-itty of Errors, and an appearance on the 2008 Lollapalooza Kid’s Stage, titled “The Q Brothers One-Stop-Hip-Hop-Happy-Hour Workshop”. Funk it Up appealed to a hybrid audience, one with at least minor familiarity with the concepts of Shakespeare, hip-hop, and theater.

To meet the demands of this odd assemblage of audience members, the production was never strictly Shakespeare, nor was it strictly hip-hop. In fact, it was often a watered-down, albeit fun, version of both. Shakespearian language was mostly omitted, with the exceptions of endearing shout-outs to the language of the Bard, such as the line “Shall we kick it? / Yes we shall”. Additionally, several specific lines from the text endure, such as John the Bastard’s “I cannot hide what I am” (1.3). At another point in the production, the cast reprises a song in the text of the play, creating a call-and-response tune of “Hey Nonny Nonny / Hey Hey Nonny Nonny”.

The outstanding cast assembled for this production added to the witty script. Stephanie Kim replaced Elizabeth Ledo as Hero on the night that I was in attendance and should receive due credit for her humorous portrayal of the naive and virginal Hero. She is painfully unaware throughout the production; when Claudio accuses of infidelity by saying “This is no white wedding,” Hero gleefully replies “Are you saying we should wait ‘til Christmas?” Other notable performances include those by JQ (Benedick) and Ericka Ratcliff (Beatrice – or MC Lady B in this production). The rivalry between the future lovers devolves at one point in the production into a rap battle, serving up a delightful verbal dexterity that continues throughout the production. Postell Pringle, who plays both Don Pedro and Verges, shows his versatility, contrasting the authoritative and masculine Don Pedro, with his depiction of Verges as an effeminate hotcop, complete with fuzzy handcuffs and hot pants.

The true triumph of this production, however, lies in the sheer volume of popular culture references contained within the hour and a half production. Characters frequently burst out in song; characters play on the word/character “Hero” by referencing Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For a Hero” and Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” (“Did you ever know that you’re my hero…”). Instead of getting it on in the window with Margaret, Borachio gropes a blow-up doll. When Borachio later attempts to “plead the fifth” in court, he’s told by the Judge (Dingleberry, played by GQ), “All I have is Jim Beam” and hotcop Verges requests a Malibu and diet.

The production often makes deliberate shifts from Shakespeare to hip-hop culture. Shakespeare’s soldiers become emcees returning from an emcee competition, rather than war. Their group name? The Arragon Soldiers. Don Pedro’s position of the Prince of Arragon becomes instead a position as the head of the Aragon Soldiers MCs, and his rulership is exhibited by his bling – a medallion in the shape of a crown. In spite of the frequent pop references to hip-hop culture, the production never really plumbs the depths of that culture. Instead, it often relies on many hip-hop stereotypes, without exploring their deeper implications.

For scholars in the worlds of Shakespeare or hip-hop, this production may have seemed somewhat lacking. Though a thoroughly enjoyable outing, the production never truly explores the issues such as sexuality and authority, two themes that could both be looked at through the lenses of Shakespeare or hip-hop. That said, however, the performance served as a wonderful primer to the often uncomfortable and unfamiliar worlds.

Top Five Lines from Funk it Up About Nothin’
1. “To have and to hold and to fight with forever” (from the wedding vows of Benedick and MC Lady B)
2. We were on love boat and your ass got jettisoned” (Hero to Claudio)
3. “I definitely don’t not love you” (Benedick to MC Lady B)
4. “The weddings off…biatch” (Claudio to Hero)
5. “Goodbye granny panties, hello thong…I’m going to write battle rap and go tag a car” (how Hero intends to rebel)

Posted by Mike Denslow at Sep 03, 2008 01:05 AM