Review: ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop’ at The Kennedy Center

Because black and brown young women have a right to Hip Hop on their own terms.

I have to marvel at all the ways the national culture temple named for our 35th president reaches out to an audience that looks like America. There’s no such uniform audience, of course—no performing art is one-size-fits-all—and KenCen is hip to that. Case in point is the institution’s expansive commitment to Hip Hop Culture—an urban black and brown phenom that wasn’t yet born when JFK was around.

HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop, which played two nights in the Family Theater, is a female-centric tribute to Hip Hop, a genre not always welcoming of young women either as artists or audience. Lyrics are often rife with misogynist name-calling and sexual objectification. (The other day I tried to listen to a rising young male rapper named Blueface whom I’d seen praised to the skies in WaPo. He seemed to be competing in a  contest for who could say fuck, bitch, pussy, and ho most often.) HERstory, written and directed by Goldie E. Patrick, features a cast of five female characters who explicitly set out to resurrect and reclaim Hip Hop so that it can be theirs.

(On stage, from left:) Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Isys), Billie Krishawn (Eve), Audei Polk (Maxine), (above:) Preshona Ambri (Lele) in ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

DJ Miss HER amped up a pre-show jam to the rhythm of the beat as if for a dance party, though everyone was seated in rows. The audience—mostly middle-school-age kids of color—filled the auditorium with the kind of irrepressible energy and excitement one might expect in a school assembly. Their anticipatory enthusiasm was infectious (and why can’t grownup theatergoers get with some of that?). From the jump, it seemed HERstory could as well be staged in a club where everyone was free to move.

A comic prologue was delivered by Heather Gibson as “Ya girl, KK,” “spilling the tea,” as if posting live on social from a news event. Amidst audible sh-sh-sh-ing (did I mention these cool kids kind of brought their own show with them?), KK managed to establish the big dramaturgical metaphor of the evening: The genre Hip Hop would be personified as HER (after Common’s 1994 hit “I Used to Love H.E.R,” an acronym for Hip Hop Is Everything Real). She is in a hospital intensive care unit, on her death bed, with life-threatening injuries. It is anyone’s guess whether she’ll make it.

Audei Polk (Maxine), Billie Krishawn (Eve), Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Isys) in ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Blue scaffolding on stage (Timothy Jones did the nicely functional scenic design) represents, among other locales, the ICU. A feeble heartbeat monitor beeps (Cresent Haynes did the excellent sound design, which subsequently included sampling from Hip Hop tracks familiar to the rap-along crowd). Besides these musical mashups (rap, gospel, r&b), vivid lighting effects (designed by John Alexander) and animated projections (designed by Katherine Freer) did an eye-filling job of punching up momentum as the somewhat labored story unfolded.

Four characters are introduced, each of them with a personal stake in the survival of Hip Hop: Maxine, a longtime fan (Audei Polk ); Eve, an earnest grad student (Billie Krishawn); Isys, a foremother and former performer (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman); and Lele, a feisty music producer (Preshona Ambri). One by one we get their first-person stories, typically framed in response to topic questions projected like surtitles on the backdrop— “When did you meet Hip Hop?” “Have you ever felt alone?”  The whole cast was excellent but Krishawn’s agile performance as a brainy scholar of Hip Hop (with some serious dance moves) and Freeman’s dignified performance as a Hip Hop elder (“Have you ever been called a bitch by your brother?”) were outstanding.

Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Isys) in ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Over the course of the play, Eve adorned the hospital room with a growing shrine to HER of flowers and other memorabilia. As the device of topic questions began to get repetitive and the one-note metaphor of HER’s medical crisis persisted, the show really hit its stride with comic relief that often came in the form of snarky friction between the characters’ points of view. There was also much amusingly trenchant sass-back at the misogyny in lyrics by male rappers, the industry’s corporate dominance of the genre, and the presumptuous appropriation of Hip Hop by white artists and consumers. The funny bits and jokes seemed to land with the audience to greater effect than did the overarching, ultimately unresolved metaphorical storyline, which challenged even my attention span. Notably, a brief scene involving a comic takedown of two white screaming fangirl/rappers (uncredited in the program) got the most raucous laugh of the night.

Somewhat unsteady as musical-theater plotting but tremendously sound in its values—a rock-solid commitment to black and brown young women’s right to express themselves through Hip Hop on their own terms—Goldie E. Patrick’s HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop is a work well worthy of mainstage production, at Kennedy Center and beyond. Because America needs to look more like this.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.

HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop played June 14 and 15, 2019, at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC – presented as part of the Irene Pollin Audience Development and Community Engagement Series.

 

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.