Hip-hop has gotten a bad rap, according to Psalmayene 24 (Psalm), the writer and director behind Cinderella: The Remix, the final installment of a three-part Hip-Hop Children’s Trilogy running through May 25 at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. It’s not the music that’s the problem, but the message sometimes is; too often, mainstream hip-hop celebrates a brand of hyper-masculinity and materialism that also excludes and denigrates women.
“I don’t know if it’s a deliberate thing, of keeping women and girls out, but I don’t see many female DJs or female rappers,” Psalm says. “I wanted to challenge those notions of masculinity and of what girls can do in that culture.”
Cinderella: The Remix was born of Psalm’s desire to present a positive message through hip-hop theatre, something he and his collaborators (choreographer and actress Paige Hernandez, composer and music director Nick Hernandez, and set designer Ethan Sinnott) have tried to do in each installment of the trilogy. Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth (2009) explored the importance of compassion and friendship by reframing a traditional West African folk tale; P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical (2012) took the familiar Pinocchio story about a mischievous puppet and focused on the notion of redemption; Cinderella: The Remix is sending a message about girl-power.
“[In the series] I’ve been thinking about the past, present, and future of hip-hop,” Psalm says. “What could really serve a healthy future for hip-hop culture? We need more women, a more diverse culture. From there, I went to thinking about what story would really mesh well with that. The first thing I thought of was Cinderella.”
Psalm acknowledges that many adults will not readily associate the familiar tale of a beautiful, if benighted, young woman and her Prince Charming with female empowerment. But apart from enjoying the element of surprise, the playwright sees some important ideas in the original fairy tale that need articulation in contemporary culture.
“Cinderella is a fundamentally good-hearted person,” he reflects. “There’s value in being a good, ethical person. We sometimes lose that. And she represents the idea of the underdog, the person or group that triumphs despite the odds. . . . We talk about the ‘Cinderella Story.’ That’s something that resonates with everybody.”
The playwright-director chooses to reinterpret traditional folk and fairy tales, such as Cinderella, precisely because they’ve stood the tests of time. “There’s something in them that resonates with the human unconscious and tells us about who we are,” Psalm asserts. A central theme he wanted to bring out of Cinderella is the idea of authenticity, of being true to oneself and not having to play a predetermined role. The protagonist of The Remix, like the original Cinderella, is forced to disguise her true identity; in this case, she’s a music-crazy young woman (played by choreographer Paige Hernandez) who dreams of being a DJ – a definite no-no in the male-dominated world of ‘Hollywood’ hip-hop. So, in true Shakespearean style, she dresses up as a boy to get the big gig. But she shouldn’t have to, right?
“The whole idea of feeling like you have to be something other than you are, it’s a simple idea that affects us on so many levels,” Psalm says. “Whether ethnicity or religious preferences or who you choose to love or who you want to marry, it’s something we wrestle with in our culture. I wanted to create a play that could resonate with the time we’re in.”
Psalm admits the possibility that he, too, may have “run away from my authentic self” in avoiding the very thing he loved – rapping – in some of his early theatre work. (“It seemed too expected of a black guy from Brooklyn,” he remembers. “Of course I’m supposed to rap!”) For her part, Remix star Paige Hernandez describes herself as a “B-girl,” or break-dancing girl, from the beginning.
“It means I eat and live hip-hop,” Hernandez says. “I grew up break-dancing, so I could never relate to the traditional princess archetype. It didn’t speak to me. I wanted to be rough and play in the mud and bust a rhyme!”
Although she understands concerns about the traditional Cinderella story, Hernandez says she would want any girl to see Cinderella: The Remix. “It’s not about romance or finding a prince,” the actress-choreographer asserts. “It’s about being yourself. She [the Remix Cinderella] makes all of her own choices and decisions and gets to see them unfold in unpredictable ways. You can’t say that about many fairy tales.”
Hernandez, her brother, composer Nick Hernandez, and set designer Ethan Sinnott have shared Psalmayene 24’s vision of bringing traditional tales to life through the contemporary idiom of hip-hop. The four have worked together on all three works in Psalm’s Hip-Hop Trilogy, starting in 2009. Hernandez says the group “speaks the same language” artistically, and they naturally complement one another’s skills.
“My choreography is made for Nick [her brother] to beat, and Psalm often writes with my voice in mind,” she reflects. “It’s really a feast of the senses.”
Hernandez says she has dreamed of being a DJ, like the Remix Cinderella, and now she gets to live out that dream onstage, if only figuratively. “I do have a basic knowledge of how to be a digital DJ with the mixes I already make online,” she remarks. “But I’d love to be able to do it with turntables and actual vinyl and buttons and nobs and needles on a record.”
Closes May 25, 2014
4908 Auburn Avenue
1 hour, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $12 – $25
Saturdays and Sundays with some additional dates
“My approach to adapting these stories is very similar to the approach a DJ or hip hop producer has in creating a bed of music,” he says. “A lot of time, they’re sampling different classic songs from the past, but approaching them with a fresh mind and maybe putting a new twist on them. . . . That’s the same approach I take to theatre, sampling classic stories from the past, while doing my best to bring them into the contemporary world and to, hopefully, glean something new from them.”
The multi-faceted artist adds that he is always careful to honor the spirit of the original stories, attempting to capture the essence that “makes them great.” It’s a kind of appreciation also reserved for hip hop, the art that has become his vehicle for storytelling. “I have such a deep respect for hip hop,” he says. “[I put it onstage because] I want other people to see what I see in terms of the beauty and elegance in the art form itself. If I can help people to appreciate hip hop like they appreciate ballet or jazz or opera, then I’ve done my job.”