Theater group supports local students’ exploration of hip hop

At Vassar, the institution’s endowment allows for the arts to thrive on an equal basis with education. But most public schools do not have the privilege to maintain a vivacious art scene, and the arts are usually first to fall victim to budget cuts.

Relationship Empowerment Affirmation Leadership (R.E.A.L.) Hip Hop Theater seeks to create a space for Duchess County youth that bridges the intellectual realm with that of the artistic.

Jackson Kroopf ’10 founded R.E.A.L. Hip Hop Theater with Tree Arrington, the director of R.E.A.L. Skills Network, which provides after-school and summer programming for Poughkeepsie and Duchess County youth. “As a whole, R.E.A.L. Skills intends to provide programming for the youth of Poughkeepsie that addresses their education needs, through tutoring and scholarships; seeks to provide constructive and creative outlets, through language based programming; and more broadly keep them occupied, which they accomplish in a myriad of ways, one being a lot of field trips,” stated Brandon Kyle Greene ’13, Art Director of R.E.A.L. Skills, in an email.

One of these language-based programs Greene described is Hip Hop Theater, in which Vassar students assist local sixth through twelfth graders in writing, directing, stage-managing and performing works of original theater.

The program maintains an inclusive environment to curb participants’ inhibitions through constant collaboration. “Art can never be incorrect. Art exists in failure and exploration.” Greene stated. “The play exists for a finite space of time, but getting a 14-year-old on stage to rap or generally exist outside their comfort zone helps to re-imagine safe-spaces and deconstruct stigma. No one can be wrong with art, so we all are equal at the theater.”

Hip Hop Theater’s productions adapt traditional works of theater to address contemporary social values. And, staying true to the program’s name, the four pillars of hip hop—rap, disk jockeying, breaking and graffiti—are at each piece’s core.

The production crew of Hip Hop Theater is tasked with creating an original play, typically based off a major work—such as the current production’s use of ‘Macbeth’,” Greene stated. “These plays attempt to resituate the goals and life lessons of the normally hyperbolically constructed characters of the original work into a more digestible form of entertainment for the community at large.”

Hip Hop Theater seeks to put on exciting plays that incorporate many elements of the arts, including rap music, dance and the creation of live art.

Greene first became involved with Hip Hop Theater after Kroopf invited him to participate in Hip Hop Theater’s production, “Wizards of PK.”

“I came on as the wizard,” he said. “The vibe in the theater was great, it was really open to commentary and input. I have done theater on campus before and appreciated the flexibility of the Hip Hop Theater production,” stated Greene.

Greene’s experience in the “Wizards of PK” galvanized him to deepen his involvement with the organization. He was soon asked to write for Hip Hop Theater, which prompted further involvement.

“I came to my current position as the art-director of Hip Hop Theater after being invited to write. Every production the theater puts on is original, although the basis of the story line usually corresponds to a major theatrical work,” stated Greene.

“Tree, the director of the R.E.A.L. Skills network, enticed me to take on more responsibility and I leaped at the opportunity.”

Those who watch a Hip Hop Theater performance immediately are often inspired to get involved themselves and deepen their appreciation of art. “I had seen a play done by Hip Hop Theater my freshman year and loved how much creative freedom was a part of Hip Hop Theater—we cast, write, etc. all ourselves. Since being involved, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for the arts that I never had,” said Tiarra Dickens ’14, President of Hip Hop 101.

Dickens turned her inspiration into action in the form of Hip Hop 101, the campus organization dedicated to honoring the four pillars of hip hop and hosting many concerts on campus. Soon afterward, she became involved with Hip Hop Theater.

“I wanted the organization [Hip Hop 101] to be more involved in the community beyond throwing free, open-campus concerts,” said Hip Hop 101’s President Tiarra Dickens ’14. “So I decided to create a position in our org called the Hip Hop Theatre liaison, who would bridge the gap between the two orgs and ensure that funding is given to Hip Hop Theater from Hip Hop 101 yearly.”

Hip Hop Theater’s spring performance is titled “Grindin’: The Come-Up,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” that incorporates themes of social injustice and hip-hop culture.

Hip Hop Theater is committed to the art of performing. Their rendition of “Macbeth” thus includes performances of original raps, poems and dance numbers, in addition to more traditional acting.

The performance will include independent dance numbers by community hip hop dance groups. The step team from the Poughkeepsie high school will hopefully be performing with us,” said Leland Masek ’14, the organization’s Director of Theater. “There will be performed rap numbers by actors and community artists such as Ayo Driver, and poet Gold. We will have live stage art, including spray-painting set pieces during the show.”

Hip Hop Theater is not only an outlet for Vassar students and Poughkeepsie teens to connect but also a venue to explore and celebrate a variety of art forms—at a space outside of, say, the Shiva.

“Since being involved I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for the arts that I never had. I never understood why art wasn’t being funded in many government funded initiatives and I’m sad to know the arts are the first to go when budgetary constraints are put on schools,” Dickens said. “More needs to be done from Vassar students for the Poughkeepsie community to have creative outlets for self-expression. So much emphasis is put on after school tutoring and College readiness, but the same efforts should be made to have programs that focus on the arts.”

Hip Hop Theater anticipates “Grindin’: The Come-Up” to attract larger crowds due to the transformative nature of performance.

“Performance is a critical aspect of ‘being,’” said Greene. “We all perform in someway or another. Hip Hop Theater provides a space for the youth of Poughkeepsie, artists and Vassar students to create and address an alternative state of being—for however long.”

Furthermore, the collaborative nature of the Hip Hop Theater’s shows beckon excitement for all who are a part of the production as well as those in attendance. “The theater’s productions push all involved to work collectively, much of the production the result of an ongoing conversation. So when the show actually goes up, everyone is excited to be on a stage they are a part of,” Greene said.

R.E.A.L. Hip Hop Theater’s one-time performance of “Grindin’: The Come-Up” will take place Friday, May 2 at 7 p.m. at the Family Partnership Center’s auditorium. The Center accommodates many community-oriented resources, including a medical clinic, domestic violence support services and after-school programming.

Those at Hip Hop Theater anticipate selling out the 700-seat auditorium. “The auditorium is normally packed to the brim with family and acquaintances that come out in support,” Greene said. “Being able to see friends and family members vulnerable on stage excites many a people and even encourages new membership, because the impact of these plays linger in the community.”

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