Hip-hop is always hungry. Like the katamari of video game fame or the doubly insatiable hippos of the childhood tabletop game, hip-hop music and culture has absorbed (and remixed and made its own) every genre that it touches. From when it was born on the streets of New York City in the 1970s, hip-hop has taken in the bass lines of funk, the vocals of R&B, the epic scale of rock, the improvisation of jazz, and the dancey jams of pop. So why not classical music?
That’s the question that the world premiere commission Outside the Bachx, promoted as a mix of classical music and hip-hop, is supposed to ask. But in reality Outside the Bachx is a hip-hop show, displaying admirable talents of breakdancing, beatboxing, DJing, song, and slam poetry which all just happen to occupy a space with a grand piano that gets played on occasion.
The story of the piece, as fleeting as its inexpertly pumped theatrical haze, tells of a rental rehearsal space shared in successive time slots by a classical pianist and a breakdancing group, who come into conflict over sharing that space, but eventually realize the fun of collaboration. The trouble is that while the piece finishes with the promised unification of the classical and hip-hop genres, the audience spends fifty minutes of the sixty minute runtime taking in scattered, though technically adept, vignettes oriented toward either hip-hop or classical music. It was like ordering a martini at a bar and only being served a glass of gin, a glass of vermouth, and an expectant look from the bartender.
But the moments that those separate elements get mixed are elevating. The finale of Outside the Bachx combines classical music and ballet beautifully with hip-hop, artfully and correctly adapting classical motifs into true combination. Another high point comes in the middle of the show, when classic Asian pentatonics and martial arts inspire hip-hop dance, though, as the two Asian actors participating in this number point out, they are Japanese and Filipino, while the music comes from China.
Outside the Bachx is admirable in its attempt to show the inclusivity of hip-hop with an ensemble of Latino, Asian, Black and White actors, but the approach to diversity is strained. The play often resorts to stereotyping to express that diversity: the Asian cast members mentioned above, Gene Shinozaki and John Vinuya, use martial arts in their dance, and the text of Gabriel Alvarez, a Dominican cast member, is all about macho bravado. I wish, especially in a show marketed for young audiences, that stereotyping could have been left by the wayside.
The show is part of the Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences. There’s no swearing, violence, or overt sexuality anywhere in the piece. By a different token though, the Outside the Bachx is held back by what seems to be an oversimplification of story and character development, both of which are shallow to the point of nonexistence. To be fair, the architecture of the Family Theater doesn’t do the staging, done by cast members Gabriel Dionisio and Ana Garcia, any favors. What may have worked in a more intimate configuration as an encompassing expression of hip-hop style feels dulled and unenergetic on a proscenium stage.
But the problem runs deeper than that. Outside the Bachx feels dumbed and watered down for the young audiences it targets. While it has the ingredients that people who don’t know young audiences expect to be winners (flashy lights, loud music, acrobatic dancing), it lacks what young people really crave: good storytelling. Just ask the kids seated all around me who began the squirming burble of boredom not fifteen minutes into the show. Give the kids some credit (I think they’re tougher critics than me), focus on telling one good story first and then worry about the flash later.
All of these criticisms have one theme: the execution of dance and poetry and song in this play were strong, but the fundamental text and storytelling lacked cohesiveness and punch. That’s an issue in the writing, also done by Dionisio and Garcia, who may have taken on too much as directors, writers, and choreographers of Outside the Bachx.
That’s atypical for a Kennedy Center commission for young audiences, which has previously produced gems like The Gift of Nothing and Orphie and the Book of Heroes.
Alan Katz – DC Theatre Scene