by 99 Seats
Chuck D famously said that rap is CNN for black people. I do not consider this hyperbole. I'm not a huge rap fan, but one thing that I find constantly interesting about most rap is how much information is packed into the rhyme, the long list of, yes, brand names and status symbols, but also metaphors, descriptions, stories of life, heartbreak, struggle and success. It's often simple and straightforward, plainly stated. At the top of "Welcome to the Jungle," a track from the Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration Watch The Throne, Kanye raps:
I asked her where she wanna be when she 25.
She turned around and looked at me and said, "Alive."
Boom. Kanye is a millionaire, a major celebrity. You have to imagine his encounters with the truly desperate are rarer and rarer these days. I don't think he's describing a recent experience. There is a strand in rap music about being down, no matter how much money you make or success you have. I don't think Jay-Z can get through an entire song without reminding us that he used to sell crack, over a decade, and several platinum albums, ago. But there's more to this than just boasting about thug life. There's witnessing happening.
Black people need a CNN because CNN so rarely tells our stories. A few weeks back, there were ads going around for a new show, hosted by S. Epatha Merkerson, focusing on missing black children, "our" children, as Epatha entoned in the ads. That's the story, though, isn't it? Black stories don't get told by the news media, or even most of the mainstream media. So somebody's got to represent.
In New York, Katori Hall's Hurt Village is that representation. In a little more than 2 hours, it does more than a month of those serious "Life In Black America" specials that pop up on CNN maybe once every couple of years. Set in the final days of the Hurt Village housing project in Memphis, Katori lays it all out: the pain of desperate poverty, the effect of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, the war on drugs, the war over drugs, gentrification, gender inequality. You name it, it raises its head. But this isn't a documentary or a harangue. It's a pretty well-built, passionate, funny, sometimes shocking, ultimately heartbreaking play. A living, breathing, rampaging beast of the stage.
It's the kind of play that features Yo Mamma jokes, R. Kelly jokes, lyrical descriptions of crack trips, stunning monologues and soap opera intrigue, all nearly at the same time. It contains multitudes. It also captures a slice of American life, particularly African-American life that, as far as I can see, we don't really see on stage, not all the much. We see it on screens, large and small, but the modern black life of theatre is largely absent. We get periodic updates, from Katori or Tarell McCraney, but that's it. It was encouraging to see it, to see a very mixed audience witness this.
As StageGrade noted, the critical reaction to this play has been...well...difficult to pin down. I read through the reviews after I saw the show and I can't put my finger on exactly what happened. But they clearly didn't see the show I saw. Some of the criticisms are completely legit: the actors talk furiously fast and loose and in a southern accent/patois that is sometimes hard to decipher. To Katori's credit, there's no glossary or anything in the program. She just expects you to catch up. That's a good thing. But it seems to left some critics out in the cold. Even the critics who liked it seem to struggle with the play, comparing it to plays that it bears only the most superficial resemblance to...or rather, comparing Katori to playwrights that she bears a superficial resemblance to. I was glad to see that one critic mentioned The Lower Depths, which seems more apt. Another play leapt to my mind: The Cherry Orchard. Katori is giving us a snapshot of a world that's about to change, and probably not for the better, at least for the characters we see. In the face of looming, inevitable change and loss, they struggle to carry on. It's a pretty basic human story. And still powerful.
Run and see it. It's a wonderful thing.
And I'll just leave you with this. Ice Cube, before he got all cuddly, dropping a little bit of knowledge on you.