LAWRENCE – A new book by a University of Kansas professor is the first to offer both a history of hip-hop’s effect on the theatrical stage and to theorize the influence of hip-hop culture on drama worldwide.
“Sampling and Remixing Blackness in Hip-hop Theater and Performance” (University of Michigan Press) by Nicole Hodges Persley has drawn pre-publication raves from scholars in the field for its rigorous research and groundbreaking analysis.
In addition to her work as artistic director of the KC Melting Pot Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, the author is an associate professor of American studies and of African & African American studies at the University of Kansas. She writes as a lifelong fan of hip-hop culture and as a keen critic of how it has been incorporated into mainstream theatre and particularly into Broadway-style musicals.
Persley examines the social ramifications of cultural borrowing (i.e., sampling) and personal adaptation (remixing) of hip-hop culture by non-Black and non-African American Black artists. Persley interviewed and/or corresponded with several of the book’s subjects, including actor-playwrights Danny Hoch (“Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop”) and Sarah Jones (“Bridge & Tunnel”) and South Korean conceptual artist Nikki S. Lee.
The chapter about hip-hop dance highlights African American choreographer Rennie Harris’ year 2000 version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” titled “Rome & Jewels,” and it shows the form’s global influence with its analysis of Black British performance artist and dancer Jonzi D’s 2006 “TAG: Just Writing My Name.”
Persley’s take on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster “Hamilton” is a complex analysis that balances praise for the actor-playwright with a critique framed around the concept of “ghosting.”
Given Miranda’s requirement that actors of color play white “founding father” roles in the musical, “There is a kind of ghosting of Black, Latinx and Asian American experiences that happens,” Persley said. “You see the bodies, but the bodies are not telling the stories of the people that are inhabiting them. That can be very triggering sometimes for audiences who experience systemic racism.”
In the end, Persley wrote, “Hip-hop has to be sampled responsibly. Remixing social conditions of oppression with those of white privilege can result in the further oppression of African American people.”
On the other hand, she wrote, done with sensitivity, “Sampling and remixing are empathetic tools that can help us do the work of remembering the shared trauma that people of color have experienced in the United States.”
With these and other insights, the author said, “I hope this book engenders truthful dialogue about cultural borrowing, aesthetic mining and systemic racism that I think we need to have.”