Feb. 13, 2006
Hip-hop has become the new folk music: an authentically populist form that has been turned into an off-the-rack style any poseur can wear. IÕm not talking about bling, but about something far more insidious: artistic pretension. Like the wannabe coffeehouse bards of a previous generation, who thought a few acoustic guitar chords and a dogeared copy of On the Road automatically bought them entry into a grand lineage, todayÕs amateur hip-pop poet/mc is all too likely to believe that the ticket into a great oral tradition is a notebook full of faux-na•f rhymes that name-check high and low culture.
Writer/composer Will Power is no beginner at this game, but with The Seven, his new adaptation of AeschylusÕ Seven Against Thebes, he has significantly over-reached his own grasp, putting hip-hop detailing on a Greek-tragedy chassis. The vehicle grinds its gears and throws off a few sparks, but itÕs a non-starter.
Why this particular Greek tragedy, we wonder? ItÕs pretty slight on incident. It follows OedipusÕ two sons, Polynices (Jamyl Dobson) and Eteocles (Benton Greene), into an inevitable smackdown over their inherited kingdom, making a few diversionary flashbacks to tell the well-worn tale of Oedipus (Edwin Lee Gibson), here seen as an embittered, superannuated pimp daddy. ŅNiggas, do you know who youÕre f---inÕ with?Ó Oedipus howls, and thereÕs something witty and sneakily profound about this conception of the original mofo as a badass whose power derives from his impressive resumˇ of depravity. This is emphatically not the Oedipus of The Gospel at Colonus, blindly praying for GodÕs forgiveness.
There are nice touches in this retelling of earlier events: When Oedipus unknowingly meets his father at the crossroads, Laius appears as an old bluesman. And to the showÕs credit, this o.g. Oedipus isnÕt just played for blaxploitation laughs; when Eteocles later describes a dream of being throttled by his father, he glimpses a cycle of abuse and self-hatred stretching backward and forward across generations of fathers and sons. The resonance here, between the tragedy of black-on-black violence and the Greek conception of fate, is powerful, all the more so for being unforced.
Alas, the rest of the show is strenuous and unconvincing. The macho Eteocles and the sinuous, soft-voiced Polynices are singularly uncompelling figures, either as loving brothers or mortal enemies. Likewise, the ŅsevenÓ of the title, a warrior supergroup that Polynices puts together to attack his old hometown, are a silly comic-book lot who get lengthy introductions but donÕt exactly bring the pain to Thebes. The same actors later play average Thebans bracing themselves for civil defense, in a risible group discussion about militarism, immigration, and theology that climaxes with an a cappella lamentation for the things war will put an end to, like Ņsailing or camping.Ó Please, GodŃnot the sailing or camping!
Director Jo Bonney has mounted an impressive-looking if incoherent production, with an industrial-strength set by Richard Hoover and brilliant lighting and projection effects by David Weiner. Bill T. JonesÕ lithe, playful choreography nods in the direction of The Matrix during the ultimate fight scenes. But the music production is mostly underpowered, and among a cast valiantly striving for authentic rap diction and moves, only Amber Efˇ, as a stageside DJ/chorus, and Postell Pringle, as the gangsta-fied Capaneous, pull it off. Above all, itÕs probably not a good sign for a show hoping to trade on the authenticity of hip-hop stylings that Tom Nelis, as a flunkie in a well-pressed suit, scores such big laughs by doing a white-bread mockery of them.
Directed by Jo Bonney
New York Theatre Workshop