Brimming with energy, Paige Hernandez brings a joyful creativity wherever she goes. As a teaching artist, actor, dancer and choreographer, and a self-professed hip-hop advocate, Hernandez has worked with artists of all ages from the classroom to the theatre and beyond.
DC Theatre Scene caught up with her by phone as her newest project P. Nokio kicks off at Imagination Stage — a new adaptation of the Pinocchio story set in a tech-infused world of computers and video games. The play is written by her close colleague Psalmayene 24, who also plays the lead role, and features original music composed by her brother Nick Hernandez.
How did you and Nick get involved in this project with Psalmayene 24?
Paige: The last time Nick and Psalm and I worked together, it was here at Imagination Stage in 2009, when we produced Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth. But actually we go back even further, to when Psalm and I both started as teaching artists at Arena Stage. In 2004, we brought in Nick to add some sound elements to a workshop we were doing. That’s how Zomo the Rabbit was born, out of that process. And that play turned into such a hit that we decided to do something together again.
P.Nokio is described in some write-ups as “hip-hop theatre.” What does that mean to you?
Paige: I think “hip-hop theatre” is its own genre. But it’s still evolving and growing. It had a sort of insurgence in the late nineties, when there were a lot more performance pieces that incorporated hip-hop elements. They had music, they had rap, they used new visual aspects like graffiti and multimedia. And there was dancing, of course. So the cultures that make this kind of theatre are a lot of hip-hop artists, b-boys, rappers, and graffiti artists. And they’re usually urban stories. Very American stories, but not necessarily stories that come from privilege. These stories are often about some uniquely urban struggles and conflicts people have with the world around them.
There’s a feeling of interaction that’s really great too. Hip-hop theatre uses call-and-response, and relies on the audience to move not just the energy forward, but the actual plot forward. We use the audience for interaction right from the start. Even in the opening number of P.Nokio, you’ve got to get on board immediately or you’re not gonna have any fun.
Why do you think this an important play, and why is Imagination Stage a good fit for it?
Paige: I feel that this play is very important to bring to a young audience, like the ones we’ve been getting. The story is based on an old, very successful fable, but we gave it a modern adaption that the kids seem to be really in love with. Some of the appeal is the hip-hop, but it’s also the ways we use technology in the play. We make references to text messaging, to video games… And all that tech is an aspect of how young people grow up now. So I think P.Nokio speaks to them in a way that they can relate to. We want to be current, to show that we’re listening to them. We want to validate and confirm who they are. We want to change and adapt to their current environment. So far, we’ve been getting big responses.
What about the rehearsal process surprised you?
Paige: The really unique thing about how Nick, Psalm and I work is that it’s organic. We had some meetings early on to talk through Psalm’s vision. But we needed to get into the rehearsal rooms, and start working on it with the other actors, before we really started setting it and making decisions.
We had a shorter rehearsal process for this one. We fit it into about three weeks. So, we got a lot accomplished in a short amount of time. Now the actors are really owning it and having fun with it. When you can actually pull that off — when everyone’s confident and you can see the actors knowing that they look good doing the moves they’ve learned — that’s a great place to be.
When we were putting together the movement we’d be working with new music. Nick would drop a beat we’d never heard before, and we’d make something up. That lasted for about the first week. Then, we started to nail down the things we liked. Psalm encouraged us from the first day to just play, to go all-out with these characters.
Some things we’ve changed as we went along. Like, James Johnson plays G.Petto, and he also plays one of the bad guys. And for his bad guy character he was doing some creepy stuff. We loved it in rehearsal, but eventually we decided it maybe was gonna make some kids cry. And my character changed a lot too, for different reasons.
I play a character called the Graffiti Fairy, so for me it was about not playing too much into stereotypes. I mean, I look like Nicki Minaj in that wig. But Psalm wanted the Graffiti Fairy to be wise, to make sure that she was a strong character who acted as a guide for P.Nokio. So that’s where we went with that character.
You’re also the choreographer for the show. Tell us about how you develop choreography, and what is does for young audiences?
Paige: Well, I specialize in movement for non-dancers, so all of my choreography is really accessible. You can watch the dancing on stage and do the moves in your seats at the same time. And the moves give a nod to different styles, different genres of music. I work off of Nick, and he has a lot of worldly influences in his music. Some beats are infused with bossa nova, or an asian flair, or something brand new, so I try to put that all in the choreography as well.
There’s a chase scene in the play, where the fox and the cat characters chase P.Nokio. Well, during that chase they’re doing some moves from capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. And they’re also going Chicago house steps, plus some old-school break moves. In other places we do things from the seventies, some disco moves, we even give some reference to Soul Train. So it’s that kind of hodgepodge. I think adults will pick up on that variety, and recognize some of it. And the younger students will think, man, that’s dynamic! And maybe later when they’re dancing they’ll pull out a move, and they’ll say, I saw that move in P.Nokio! I can’t think of anyone who won’t find something they like.
What has excited you about the performances so far? How have they met, or changed, your expectations?
Paige: It’s been so much fun. The preview period was especially important. We did our first three performances for student groups in the middle of the week, and man oh man, did we learn from them! We adjusted a few different parts of the show, we changed choreography, we changed sight lines, and we played with the intensity of certain climactic moments. Overall, we made the decision to go over-the-top, in order to get the reaction we were expecting.
We’d get ideas, and we’d run more tech on it. So between those previews we were still in rehearsal — we’d be there for another three or four hours after the show. And to have the director with us as a cast member, you can still make the changes as you go. It’s been great.
The weekends are nice in kind of a different way, because we have more of an adult audience, and they get some of the other jokes in the play. But there were definitely things about the show we didn’t understand until we had an audience. That’s always true, but especially with a show like this, which has so much interaction!
I’m also looking forward to taking the show on the road. Once it’s done at Imagination, we’re taking it up to New Jersey. We close here on March 11, and we head up the day after. Then we continue the run at NJPAC [The New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark]. And who knows? Maybe there’s a life after that.
You’re also an accomplished independent artist. How do you think P.Nokio influences your own projects going forward?
Paige: It’s given me a lot of ideas. This kind of work is why I started my own company last year. It’s called B-Fly Entertainment, and it serves as the umbrella organization for my one-woman shows, Paige In Full and Havana Hop.
I went into business because I knew I had to do something big. So my motto is: Elevated Arts for the Hip-Hop Generation. I’m hoping people see that the work B-Fly is doing is elevated, it’s different, and it’s current. Because now, people who grew up with hip-hop are turning 30 and 40, and they need to bring their kids places to see shows. So, what do you do, take them to a Lil Wayne concert? No way, bring them to a B-Fly show!
The next B-Fly show is called Liner Notes. We’re doing it as part of the Intersections Festival on H Street [on March 1st]. That project looks at the very beginnings of hip-hop, with a live jazz quintet. And we’re gonna dramatize the liner notes from some famous old albums.
It’s going to be a family show, ages twelve and up. I want to make sure that everything in my company is multi-generational. So that the jazz-heads in their 60s who hate hip-hop end up at the show right alongside the young guys. It’s hard to find that line, but I think the reward is so worth it — to see whole families engaged with each other. I hope they walk away from my shows curious about the musicians and the figures we bring out. I want to help make things timeless.
So, thinking ahead, even as you’re in the thick of performances?
Paige: Yeah! We’re good to go with P.Nokio. The show has found its shape. Now it’s about living in it and having fun. I think our shared bond as actors is going to grow tremendously during the performance weeks. We’re really finding moments we can revel in. We’ve got to keep making the show our second skin, and letting it get better and better. We’re really happy with where it’s come so far, but it’s gonna grow exponentially as we keep living it.
Debbie Jackson reviews P. Nokio