REVIEW: DC Hip Hop Theater Festival at Dance Place
by Christina Lindenmuth
The week of July 6th – 13th marked the 17th annual DC Hip Hop Theater Festival. Presented by Hi-ARTS, the Hip Hop Theater Festival serves as a platform for emerging urban artists to produce new works and expand their audiences. The evening of July 8th, two productions were presented at Dance Place in the Brookland neighborhood of NE Washington D.C.
First, a non-dance mixed media performance was presented, entitled Name Calling, and was written and performed by actress Goldie E. Patrick. This first piece was a one-woman show of poetry, acting, videography, and music. The piece began with a video of two hands: an adult hand teaching a child’s hand how to write. A voice over came on and spoke about names, “the ones we were given and the ones we change.” The lights came up, and as the speaking continued, I realized the woman on stage was speaking in real time, and that this was not a recording! She wore a printed robe and had her long, curly dreads pulled up in a scarf on top of her head.
She took us on an emotional rollercoaster, a day in the life of Yewande – a female Nigerian-American lawyer who “forgot her name” that day. From the moment she wakes up from a nightmare and gets ready for work, she encounters situations that trigger her insecurities, question her conviction, and strengthen her gratitude. Through her clever use of poetry, sometimes rhyming and sometimes not, Yewande described every thought that crossed her mind as she approached these different situations, profane, vulgar, and raw as they might’ve been. Her message was very clear: some of the challenges she faced were because she was a person of color, others because she was a woman, and even some because she was a black woman.
The mixed media aspect of the performance was well thought out and not overdone. For example, when she woke up from her nightmare, her alarm clock was perfectly timed, and when she went from walking on the street into her office, the lighting changed perfectly in sync. Throughout the show, music would play at just the right moments. The only physical prop was a small cube center stage, which served as a desk chair, a seat on the train, the back seat of a Chevy Impala, a bathtub, etc. This production was brought to life by the story and the outstanding performance of Goldie E. Patrick with a bit of help from the subtle stage effects – no bells and whistles needed.
The other production of the evening, a modern dance, Body of Work, choreographed by Ebony Ingram, was a series of pieces that were meant to demonstrate the relationship between our bodies and our memories. Unfortunately, it felt like the idea and the execution of this piece were rushed. The solos, duets, and ensemble pieces seemed a bit disconnected and ended with abrupt cuts in the music and awkward blackouts. The portions of choreography that were performed in unison were out of sync and felt under-rehearsed. Also, the program was printed incorrectly, which made it difficult to follow along, and it contributed to my overall difficulty understanding the story line.
However, underneath the unfortunate production elements, there was redeeming modern dance choreography and a unique, beautiful quality of movement. My favorite segment was Steal Self, an upbeat trio with a sensual, African vibe with shoulders bouncing, chests popping, and heads rolling. The performers were emotional, almost frantic. They interchanged symmetrical formations and intricate shapes. Then, one of the girls ended up centerstage and fell lifelessly to the ground. The other two then became distraught, and the piece ended soon after without a clear explanation.
This production also featured a bit of mixed media with a video projection during the last piece, Altar. To my dismay, the video was distracting me from what was happening on stage. I was more entertained by the girl dancing in the video than I was by the live performance, and I didn’t quite understand the video’s purpose. There was a small table placed upstage, and as the projection played, different girls in robes came out one by one to place objects, such as a flowers, a book bag, and a candle, on the table. Then, they all joined each other on stage for an ensemble piece, which was pleasing because of the music, the colors, the uplifting energy, and the funky choreography. But, like the other pieces, the finale didn’t seem to wind down and ended with the dancers suddenly exiting the stage.
Throughout my evening with the DC Hip Hop Theater Festival I kept asking myself, “Where’s the hip hop dancing?” In a Q & A following the show, both choreographers explained how they tied hip hop culture into their piece. Gloria E. Patrick explained that the music she chose for her piece was a demonstration of sampling – the foundation of hip hop music. She would use an older song and follow it with the hip hop song that sampled the same track. I can accept that answer. Her piece was also in an urban setting and made references to the iconic old school party scene, so I can see a small nod to hip hop there as well. Ebony Ingram explained that her piece was inspired by an interview with hip hop artist Missy Elliot, which was unconvincing for me. I also learned through this Q & A that Patrick’s piece Name Calling has existed for quite some time, at least long enough for her to revamp it to align with personal matters she was going through. Ingram’s piece Body of Work, however, was put together in just four weeks. Overall, I find it a bit unfair that these two productions should have to share the stage with each other in one evening.
I also believe that Hi-ARTS could’ve included traditional forms of hip hop dance and/or theater to this showcase at their annual DC Hip Hop Theater Festival. What the term “hip hop” has come to include over the past decade or so has broadened significantly, but if there were ever a time to celebrate its roots and the main characteristics of how it all came to be, it would certainly be during a festival called by its own name.