No Other Way of Telling It: Hip Hop and “Dreamscape”

“If it’s not essential to telling the story, don’t use it.”
— Peter Nigrini, theatre projection designer

Rickérby Hinds loves hip hop.  He’s the founder and artistic director of the CaliFest Hip Hop Theater Festival.  But he’s said almost the same thing about hip hop that Nigrini said about projection — if it’s not essential to telling the story, don’t use it.

Hinds’ latest creation, Dreamscape, makes the case eloquently.

dreamscape

Music and and dance have always been an integral part of theatre. They’ve been woven into the way people tell each other stories since long before anyone learned to write.

Several millennia down the road, along comes hip hop — yet another  way of making music and dance, evolved in the urban centers of the post-industrial world.  It’s a natural way to tell a story, and many artists do, though their stories are marketed as popular songs.

“Hey,” a voice says.  “We want young, urban audiences in our theatres — let’s use hip hop!”  Whoa, there.  Are you just sellin’, or are you tellin’?

Cut to:  Riverside, California, three days after Christmas, 1998.
A young woman is shot to death by police while asleep in her car.  She is black.  They are not.

The story is picked up and told and retold by the news media, and a storm erupts.  There are marches, press conferences, investigations.  And more news stories.  Almost all these stories — written, spoken,  sworn to in court, whispered in kitchens — are about the four cops, their thoughts and their actions.

The girl’s story is mostly untold.  As if the only thing she did was die.

So Hinds, who lives and works in Riverside, decides he must try to tell her story.  Who she might have been before that December night, who she was trying to become.

And because he feels and thinks in hip hop the way Bach did in counterpoint, or Fosse did in jazz dance, the story starts to come out with beat-boxing, rhymed sing-speaking, and energetic, angular dance moves.  All of them ways the girl might have used — surely would have enjoyed and understood — to tell her story.

What we first know of the girl (“Myeisha Mills,” performed by Rhaechyl T. Walker) is that she explodes with energy, flying about the space with constant surprises, laughing and singing and rhyming with infectious joy and wit.

Not that she hasn’t known hurt — she’s been ostracized and beaten, we learn, and she’s sat with her beloved brother as he lay in a coma. But she somehow keeps the fresh, eager playfulness of a youngster embracing the unfolding world.

Punctuating her telling, like the drone of a Celtic bard’s bodhran or an African griot’s kora, are harsh, insistent beat-box sounds (created by the astounding John “Faahz” Merchant).

Again and again, sudden clicks and growls and strangled samplings erupt, dragging us back to the moment of the shooting.  One by one, this norn-like voice of fate intones, in cold coroner’s language, the paths of the  bullets that tore through Myeisha’s body, tearing away her life.

By the end, when four bullets in swift succession smash apart the soft sweet tissues of her brain, we are plunged into grief.  Lost, this beautiful child we were learning to love.  Stilled, this dance; silenced, this song, this unfolding life.

This way of telling the story hands us no shield of outrage to hide behind, arms us with no anger to turn outward.  It makes us instead hold the deep, inner loss of a lovely human being.

I cannot imagine telling this story any other way.

Any other way it becomes, like the news versions, a story of a killing, of race and injustice.  And the girl herself disappears.  Just like she did that night.  Such stories repeat the violence, the violation of her being, her humanity, her unique story.

Hinds’ way of telling it — and Walker’s, and Merchant’s — impress her indelibly upon our minds and hearts.  We cannot hope to walk away from her, or forget her.  She has danced and sung and rhymed her way into our lives.  We find bits of her song returning to us, unexpectedly, bringing her with them.

That is what happens when you tell a story using the music and dance it must have.  When you sing the life — not of an Irish or Mandinka king — but of an urban American girl, and project her — not how she died, but how she lived — into immortality.

Dreamscape is, in Hinds’ words, “a gypsy show,” always on the road, or packed and ready to go.  He and his collaborators are committed to presenting it anywhere in the world it is invited.

It appears in this city next in October.  First, for a single show, at MONK Space downtown.  Next, five showings in the Encuentro 2014 Theatre Festival at LA Theatre Center.  Watch for it.

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Dreamscape, written and directed by Rickérby Hinds, choreographed by Carrie Mikuls.
Presented by Hindsight Productions at LA Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd. (Closed.)

In October:
Oct. 7, 8:00pm — MONK Space, 4414 W. Second St.
Tickets: <http://evrd.us/IevCo>

Oct. 18, 2:30 and 8:30pm
Oct. 23, 8:30pm
Oct. 25, 2:30 and 8:30pm — LA Theatre Center, 519 S. Spring St.
Tickets: <www.thelatc.org>