"I got the idea way back," the African American Rennie Harris says in his show's preface. "At about 15 I saw West Side Story and thought it would be better with hip-hop." It took 21 years, but last summer marked the premiere of Rome and Jewels, which has toured the US and now comes here. In London the audience packed the theatre, their youth and enthusiasm vibrating through the air.
Was it the generation gap? It wasn't the dance, though, that I found tedious. It was the narrative structure of this multimedia Romeo and Juliet story, reworked and updated to urban gangland in modern America. Romeo becomes Rome; Juliet is Jewels, but she never appears, remaining some invisible ideal. That was probably just as well, since I found it hard enough to distinguish the other characters in a staging so amorphous and garbled that it would make a riot look orderly.
Harris himself makes occasional, confusing entries as the Grand Imperial Wizard MC – a latter-day Prince of Verona, I suppose. There are video projections, computer animation, voice distortions, sound-mixing DJs, billows of dry ice: with so much going on around the story, the dramaturg Ozzie Jones needs to delineate his basic contours properly, instead of the opposite.
Dialogue makes up half the production, and this, too, wants a tidier presentation. Characters seem to jump from one topic to another, which only makes the rap argot more impenetrable to 30-plus-year-olds. And yet of the 70 per cent I could understand, some was actually funny and clever, especially the soliloquies delivered by Rodney Mason's Rome. It was apparently Mason's idea, as a Shakespeare buff, to mix and match extracts from the Sonnets and Romeo and Juliet with present-day street language. The implications of speaking the Bard in Britain are not lost on him – "Watch out, London!" he advises. He runs through a gamut of actorly deliveries, and reveals himself a virtuoso.
The audience went rightly wild for a number showcasing the turntable wizardry of DJ Miz and Evil Tracy. But best of all was the dancing: the fluid jerk of body-popping, the jagged, springy syncopations of stepping, the floor-knitting acrobatics of breakdance, which, according to Harris, is a misnomer for b-boying. (Does that make the company's two female dancers b-girls?) Sabela Delvin Grimes, who plays Rome's friend, Ben V, is a body-popper extraordinaire, able to travel bonelessly backwards, as if transported on a thin cushion of air. The confrontation between the Caps and Monster Qs takes the form of a coruscating b-boying contest, with solo displays of corkscrew headstands, shoulder spins and anything else liable to tear a body apart.
Harris founded his Rennie Harris Puremovement company, based in Philadelphia, in 1992, to preserve and promote authentic hip hop as a community culture and a theatrical form. All power to him. I may have doubts about the present show as a framework, but in another context – cool!
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