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Hip to the Hop The eighth annual Hip-Hop Theatre Festival kicks off with "the break/s" and explores a still-growing form.
As hip-hop culture has become increasingly mainstream, who's left to keep it real—to represent the alternative voices and visions that once defined the hip-hop generation? Answers can be found in the eighth annual New York Hip-Hop Theater Festival, which opens this week with the local premiere of Marc Bamuthi Joseph's the break/s at the Skirball Center for the Arts and continues through Oct. 11 with Danny Hoch's borough-spanning tour of his new show Taking Over, prior to its premiere at the Public Theatre in November.

And they may not be the answers you'd think.

"If we can truly accept that hip-hop culture is a larger force, then there's room and space for everything," says Kamilah Forbes, the Festival's artistic director and a performer and director in her own right. "Just as there's room for hip-hop artists to speak about politics and also to entertain, there's room for hip-hop theater artists to do all that, too."

Indeed, defining "hip-hop theatre" is not an exact science. Consider the range of artists who've been part of the festival over the years: Will Power (The Gathering, The Seven), Sarah Jones (Surface Transit, Bridge & Tunnel), Nilaja Sun (No Child...) and Liza Colon-Zayas (Sistah Supreme, the LAByrinth Theatre Company), among many others. Hip-hop theatre artists tend to be people of color, but not exclusively; they tend to be presenting solo spoken-word pieces, but not necessarily; they may incorporate overt elements of hip-hop culture—rapping, breaking, graffiti—or they may simply embody the perspective and experience of the hip-hop "generation" in some way.

"A lot of what we're seeing now is looking at language, coming out of the spoken word tradition," Forbes explains. "For some artists, rapping is their mode of storytelling. But I don't think that rapping is the be-all, end-all goal; that's sometimes the jumping-off point, but it's the beginning and not the end."

Forbes traces hip-hop theatre to the English performer Jonzi-D, who began doing a hybrid of hip-hop, dance and theatre in the mid-1990s.

"What Jonzi did was experiment with b-boy movement and text, and he developed his own theatrical vernacular," Forbes explains. When, in 2000, Danny Hoch and comrades launched the first Hip-Hop Theatre Festival, it became a focal point for "a lot of different artists working in their own realms who didn't necessarily know about each other," Forbes says. "They had grown up in the hip-hop generation but theatre was their mode of expression, but not under any organized auspices."

That's changed as hip-hop theatre artists have matured and developed a sense of the theatrical medium.

"At the end of the day, there are rules to the theatre," Forbes acknowledges. "A lot of these artists look back to the Black Arts Movement, to people like Ntozake Shange and Amiri Baraka, and also to world classical theatre and classic American works. Our work is not contained in the vacuum of just this generation."

This talk of "generation," though, is imprecise, since by some accounts hip-hop culture is about three decades old. Forbes agrees that by now there are probably at least three generations under the umbrella of hip-hop culture, and she points out that the existence of hip-hop theatre as a form unto itself has made an impact on mainstream hip-hop culture.

"What's happening now is there's a greater interest among young artists who are realizing, 'This is another avenue to express myself--to say something which cannot be told in just 16 bars.' "

If you're still casting around for a definition of hip-hop theatre, you might do well to look away from the stage altogether.

"It's theatre by, for and about a generation, and so who shows up is a huge part of the art-making process," Forbes says of the diverse audience for hip-hop theatre. "It's kind of hard to describe it as a thing; it's more an experience."

That sounds a lot like what all of the best live performance offers, hip-hop and otherwise. And that's why ultimately, hip-hop theatre is something you have to see to believe.

"There's a certain breath and energy that can be indescribable in this form," says Frobes. "But you just see it and you know."

Click here for information about the break/s and click here for information about the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival.