Bay Area Theatre Cypher Builds a Community Where Hip Hop Meets Theatre
Wednesday, January 8, 2020
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Rotimi Agbabiaka
Anyone concerned about the future of hip hop in theatre can look past the recent closing of Chicago’s Hamilton to the Bay Area, where Brecht is inspiring nascent rap stars and a new company is lifting up artists at the intersection of hip hop and theatre.
The Bay Area Theatre Cypher, birthed last fall through a viral video, just closed an acclaimed show at Aurora Theatre and shows no signs of slowing down in 2020.
The seeds for the group were sown when Phillip Wong, an Oakland-based actor and musician, got cast last summer in California Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. Wong had been secretly writing hip-hop rhymes since college but it wasn’t until he donned the larger-than-life costumes and heightened makeup of his characters in the show that he felt inspired enough to film his flow and share it with the world.
“We were wearing these really dope costumes and all this Brechtian make up, these giant Peking opera feathers and I was like, ‘I feel so fly I gotta make a video.’” he says.
Wong’s castmates provided the beats, back-up dancing, and iPhone filmography as he rapped about working his way up through the Bay Area theatre scene and doing his first show at Cal Shakes.
Phillip Wong performing in Tell Tale Hearts. Photo by Scot Goodman.
The video caused a minor sensation when he posted it on social media and soon caught the attention of Dan Wolf, a performer, writer, and educator, who has been making hip-hop inflected theatre since the mid-nineties with rap group Felonious, formed with Tommy Shepherd and Keith Pinto, Wolf’s classmates at Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts. The group transplanted to the Bay Area, added new members, and created a prolific oeuvre of music and theatre before disbanding in 2018. Since then, Wolf had been searching for a new way to combine his loves for theatre and hip hop. As he watched Wong blend theatrical themes with hip-hop swagger, he recognized a kindred spirit.
“I was really inspired by the infectious freedom and honesty that he approached his video with,” says Wolf. He reached out to Wong about the possibility of collaborating.
A string of direct messages between the two generated the idea of doing a cypher—the hip-hop version of a jam session—and including other Bay Area artists who live at the intersection of hip hop and theatre.
“What came out was this idea to utilize the shape and the structure and the aesthetic of the cypher—the circle of energy where many different ideas can come together and be shared,” Wolf explains.
Drawing inspiration from online cypher videos, Wolf and Wong fantasized about harnessing the music video format to address community issues.
“How can we use that structure but, instead of just rapping to be dope, utilize it as an open space where people can really honestly speak on the challenges of the theatre community,” Wolf says.
The duo sent out messages, borrowed the Cal Shakes rehearsal hall, and assembled a crew. Tommy Shepherd, Ryan Nicole, Davied Morales and Rahman Jamaal would rap alongside them; Keith Pinto would DJ; and Tasi Alabastro and Adam Elder would shoot the video. As the group riffed on the theme of “community”, the Bay Area Theatre Cypher began to gel.
“When we all got together and started talking about what we wanted to do, the energy was there and we knocked out the video in a few takes because everyone was on the same page,” says Wong.
Dan Wolf performing in Tell Tale Hearts. Photo by Scot Goodman.
The greater theatre community seemed to be on that page as well. Upon release, the video inspired praise, shares, and invitations to perform at a variety of venues, from wineries to Oakland’s Life Is Living festival. The crew found itself having to think a little bigger.
“We got asked to perform at the Life Is Living festival and then all of a sudden we had to ask ourselves, ‘OK, so what does it mean to be a live performance versus a studio video performance?’” says Wolf.
For Wolf, this marked a new chapter in his decades-long career as a hip-hop artist but Wong was walking into unfamiliar territory.
“I’d never done a live rap show before,” Wong admits. “I was mildly terrified at the prospect of doing it but I guess this is what making art is about. It’s about branching out to different things, some things that you never thought to do, and using that same algorithm that you’ve used on your other art to figure out how [the new thing] works.”
Thanks to the cypher, he had some help figuring it out.
“Suddenly I had a body of work, I had rhymes,” Wong says. “I was learning how to freestyle just by hanging out with Dan and all those guys.”
Then they got a call from Carlos Aguirre, a former Felonious bandmate of Wolf’s. Aurora Theatre Company wanted Aguirre to perform his beatbox adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in the company’s cabaret space. He needed to fill a sixty-minute time slot and his piece was only ten minutes long. Would the Bay Area Theatre Cypher be interested in performing at his show?
Carlos Aguirre aka Infinite performing in Tell Tale Hearts. Photo by Scott Goodman.
Wolf and Wong saw this as an opportunity to further define their new collaboration as a generator of community based work. Brainstorming with Aguirre, they decided that the Aurora show would be anchored around hip-hop adaptations of classic myths, while showcasing a rotating lineup of Bay Area performers presenting original work that, in freestyle fashion, would be raw in form and unconventional in presentation.
“Every night we changed the lineup and every night we rearranged the setlist and tried to make it work a little better,” says Wong. “It felt like a living breathing piece that was fresh every single night, a kind of active performative workshop where we got to play with each other and explore this art form, both art forms, theatre and hip hop, and see how they connect, where it works and where it doesn’t.”
The three headliners and their guests interspersed the myths—Aguirre’s Tell-Tale Heart, Wolf’s rap adaptation of the Daedalus and Icarus story, and Wong’s hip-hop retelling of the ballad of Mulan—among freestyle moments of hip-hop improvisation.
“We had this bucket for the audience to throw words into because later on we were going to freestyle those words out of the bucket until the bucket was empty,” recalls Aguirre. “And then we would say: ‘Your job as an audience is to fill this [bucket] up with green paper’ so it would become a tip bucket.”
The sold-out production charmed audiences and critics and Aurora Theatre is bringing Tell Tale Hearts back for another two-week run this February.
According to Aguirre and Wolf, the mainstream theatre response to hip hop has grown in leaps and bounds since the late nineties and early aughts, when they both trod the boards with Felonious.
“We went to a bunch of regional theaters with this idea,” Aguirre says about Beatbox: A Raparetta, a piece penned by Wolf and Tommy Shepherd. “And we got a lot of similar answers way back then in the early 2000s of people being like, ‘We don’t know how to market this.’”
A lot has changed since then, including the success of a little show called Hamilton, and Wolf is especially encouraged by witnessing a growing hunger for theatre that speaks truth to power.
“Attitudes have changed and people are more ready to question everything and tear everything apart,” Wolf observes.
“The straightforwardness with which hip hop has always flourished—just being honest and dope and flashy and fresh and on beat—the power of all the things that make hip hop this amazing revolution of mind and body and spirit and soul is what the theatre is ready to hear.”
This positive response has emboldened the crew to plan future cyphers that address issues like institutional racism, patriarchy, and wage inequities, which Wolf assets continue to bedevil the theatre industry. In order to welcome a growing and diverse group of collaborators, Wolf and Wong are committing to an ambitious undertaking.
“It started out as a little video project and then in order to get in touch with everyone we said, ‘We have to have an email address,’” says Wong, “and, “I guess if we want to keep producing these videos then we have to start writing grants,” and then we were like, “Oh s**t, we’re running a theatre company.”
As the crew prepares for the upcoming return of Tell Tale Hearts, they are also talking with other Bay Area theatres about producing hip-hop plays. Their future goals are fueled by a strengthened faith in boldly taking a shot.
“The last five months have definitely made me less afraid to just do something,” says Wong. “Start with something, put it out there, see how people respond, and then mold it and make it better.”
Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, and teaching artist. Learn more about him at rotimionline.com