Someday, perhaps, rap will rule Broadway. There's already a hip-hop theater festival headlined by performance artist Sarah Jones kicking off in New York City this week. In Hollywood rapper Q-Tip is set to star in a forthcoming hip-hop movie musical titled Prison Song. Just as the rock-infused shows Hair (1967) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) helped revitalize the musical in the past, hip-hop holds the power to bring new life to the form today. If Dr. Dre ever wins a Tony, you'll know something's up.
Echo Park, now playing at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, is an early attempt to combine the outsider rhythms of hip-hop with the conventions of musical theater. Echo Park's story line is slim and simple: Scott Jenkins (Derrik "Nine" Keyes), a young man growing up in the early days of rap, longs to be a deejay but has to persuade his mother Bertha (DK Dyson) to let him follow his dreams. Along the way, the show tries to educate the audience about hip-hop history (rap pioneer Kurtis Blow plays a narrator). Strangely, the rap songs in Echo Park are almost incidental; they aren't used to comment on the action or round out the characters. The show is clearly a work in progress, so hopefully some full-fledged rap numbers will be added.
Hip-hop culture, of course, isn't just about rap; break dancing is also an important part. And the dancing in Echo Park is spectacular. B-boys in the show spin like records on turntables and twist themselves like laces on Adidas sneakers. Without words, without samples, they capture the raw energy of rap.
--By Christopher John Farley