You are here

26.3.Traweek

This paper shows how the relatively recent genre of hip hop theater, with its heavy reliance on elements of music, song, and dance, provides a vibrant and living way of presenting the chorus of Greek tragedy. Taking a hip hop adaptation of an ancient play as its primary example, the argument uses the methodologies of theater reception studies (e.g. Foley, Gamel, Hall, and Hardwick), and builds on scholarship in Classical as well as African-American literary traditions (e.g. Banks, Catanese, Cook and Tatum, Hall, Walters, and Wetmore). As a way of briefly summarizing the history and conventions of hip hop theater, the paper begins by outlining the inherent similarities between hip hop theater and Greek tragedy; both are shaped by a heightened consciousness of social justice, for instance, both are competitive performative traditions fundamentally rooted in the reworking of earlier materials, and, most importantly for the purposes of this paper, both feature a singing and dancing collective alongside individual performers.

With this background established, the paper then turns to the case study, Will Power's The Seven, a hip hop re-imagining of Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes that was first produced in 2001. Although he broadens the plot of the play to incorporate background information essential to the story but likely unfamiliar to modern audiences, Power's presentation follows the Aeschylean model in its basic story line. At first glance, however, his chorus differs markedly from the traditional Greek chorus. Rather than presenting one constant chorus of unchanging identity, he has divided the chorus into two roles with distinct functions: the first is a group of rappers who adopt and shed identities fluidly as they participate in and are subject to different aspects of the action of the play. The second is a DJ who stands outside the play, comments on it, and controls its boundaries – her action of dropping the needle onto the record is what sets the play in motion, for instance, and the play ends when she packs up her equipment. These two aspects, while physically and dramatically distinct, are nonetheless closely linked; the chorus is identified in the cast description as "[T]he DJ's 'posse'" who "help the DJ by seamlessly becoming whatever she needs [it] to be."

While both of these aspects, the implicated rappers as well as the quasi-omniscient DJ, are innate to the genre of hip hop theater, they map onto the traditional Greek chorus in interesting ways. The hip hop chorus in The Seven portrays several different groups over the course of the play, but is consistently cast in relatively powerless roles, able to react to the action of the play but rarely to control it. In this, it recalls the tendency of the Greek chorus to represent lower status figures and to function as the "internal audience." The DJ, on the other hand, is removed from the immediate consequences of the plot; she takes a more expansive perspective, and speaks more to the philosophical implications of the situation than to the specific action itself. Her role is thus reminiscent of the way that the choral odes can pull away from the particulars of their plot to reflect on constants of myth and humanity. Both rappers and DJ, meanwhile, make use of the full range of kinetic and musical features of the hip hop tradition.

Power's The Seven, then, not only gives the audience the experience of witnessing a singing and dancing chorus that is organically and generically contextualized within the play, but dramatizes several of the theorized functions of the ancient Greek chorus. Hip hop theater as a genre, I argue, is thus capable of reinvesting the tragic chorus with a vitality and immediacy that few other genres can match.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy