Hip Hop Theatre

By Cheikh Athj

In the back office of the Family Partnership Center sits a collection of students from the city of Poughkeepsie. Periodically, they erupt into thunderous fits of laughter and knee-slapping before returning to what they’re all really up to: the first read through of this semester’s Hip Hop Theatre script: Grindin’: The Come Up.

Based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the concept for this semester’s play was provided by Tree Arrington, the Director of the R.E.A.L. Skills Network, which is facilitated by the Family Partnership Center in Poughkeepsie. Arrington considers this semester’s play invaluable. He says, “we all know that there needs to be social changes made. We’re culturing our young ones to pay attention to theatre. It’s our form of edutainment.” Hip Hop Theatre seeks to use the genre as a way to explain, express, heal, and activate the community it engages. Macbeth in particular lends itself to broader application, with prescient themes like a rise to stardom, the domination of communities, deception, and the price of fame. In this case, the young actors will explore the ways hip hop has changed the world.

Started in 2008 by a Vassar alumnus, Hip Hop Theatre gives Vassar students the opportunity to connect with Poughkeepsie’s public school students through the artistic mediums of hip hop and theatre. Since its creation, it has functioned as a sort of artistic hand-me-down: Vassar seniors who have spearheaded the project pass on the torch to rising underclassmen with the hope that student involvement will continue for years to come. It’s an important space, fostering a connection between the walled off garden of Vassar and the city that surrounds it.

According to Haidya Shire ’14, the lead writer for Hip Hop Theatre this year (and Contrast’s Editorial Director), Hip Hop Theatre offers “students a break from the rigid performance of academia, which often stifles other parts of your identity.” Hip Hop Theatre functions as a fluid, creative space where students can use their talents to explore theatre as a genre, foster their creative passions and, in the process, transform themselves.

Brandon Greene, a graduate of Vassar’s class of 2013 and Intern at the R.E.A.L. Skills Network notes that “this is one of the few collaborative spaces in Poughkeepsie where what might seem like contradictory artistic forms like academia and hip hop find room for joint expression.” Hip Hop Theatre functions at the center of multiple intersections; students from Vassar and Poughkeepsie’s public schools engage with one another while analyzing important, sometimes uncomfortable themes through the common lens of hip hop. “I think it’s a Vassar student’s responsibility, Shire echoes, “to invest in Hop Hop Theatre and the consciousness it creates, to have fun and be free to teach your fellow students, as well as allowing yourself to be taught.”

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Perhaps the most positive thing about Hip Hop Theatre, even more so than the creation of art, is that it exists as a healthy, constructive space for people of color and individuals from lower socioeconomic brackets. Many of the students who participate in the Real Skills Network come from the inner city of Poughkeepsie--an area rich with vibrant, talented young lives--but lacking in opportunity and economic support. With the high dropout rates of the city’s students (over 70% according to Arrington) Hip Hop Theatre is a vital place for those who take part in it.

Hip Hop Theatre is one of the most important affinity spaces that Vassar has to offer. It provides a safe place for students to explore themselves and their interests through hip hop, what David Foster Wallace described as “the most important American poetry of the 21st century.” Hip Hop Theatre has come a long way since its inception, but there is still much work to be done. Shire predicts, “as long as there are people willing to commit and be passionate; to care, to listen, and be protective of this program, the possibilities of growth are limitless."

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Though Hip Hop Theatre is no longer an active Vassar initiative, Real Skills Network still exists and works in Poughkeepsie. Follow their work in the city at http://www.realskillsnetwork.com/.

Adapted from Contrast Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 2