Hip hop is alive at Macalester. This was news to me, but Hip Hop Hopes: What’s Going On? proved it.

Sold-out crowds swarmed to the Main Stage Theater on the past two weekends to surround and literally inhabit the world of hip hop for an hour and a half. Ushers encouraged audiences at the stage door to leave their stuff outside and come take a seat wherever they liked on the set, whether sitting on the bleachers surrounding the stage, leaning up against a graffiti-sprayed wall, or perching on the ledge lining the back of the space. “You’re going to move around a lot,” ushers warned the incoming spectators.

The show forced the audience to dive into the stories of the 16 students who created it, in collaboration with Theatre Professor Harry Waters Jr., and several guest artists: co-director/community movement artist Leah Nelson, breaker/costume designer Damian “Daylight” Day, musician/educator Roosevelt “RDM” Mansfield of UPRock, lighting mixmaster Mike Kittel, and set designer/Bedlam Theatre co-founder John Bueche ’92.

The performers took us to a small village in China, a breakdance battle, a barber shop in downtown Minneapolis. They exposed cultural barriers on a park bench, explored their sexual identity on the dance floor, lost loved ones halfway across the world. They expressed themselves unabashedly, completely comfortable and surrounded on all fronts by an eager-faced audience. They traipsed across the stage and delivered slam poetry from a scaffolding. They incorporated hip hop dance moves like tutting and popping and gliding into casual conversation.

James Zhou ‘13 and Stephen Peyton ‘13. Photo courtesy of Rick Spaulding.

James Zhou ‘13 and Stephen Peyton ‘13. Photo courtesy of Rick Spaulding.

To try to enumerate all of their stories here would be fruitless. Instead, I’ll share three things I learned about hip hop and theater—and the rare magic that happens when they come together—from Hip Hop Hopes.

First: when it’s real, it’s never cheesy. Naked honesty drove the show. At times it seemed as though the emotion was ladled on a bit too heavily, but it was all real emotion. Each story was fresh and original, because each was entirely unique to the person telling it. Even the moments when the performers acted as exaggerated characters, often hilariously so, felt genuine, as though the performer knew someone like the character they were playing in their lives.

Second: anyone can be a good dancer if they can feel the music. A few moments of sharp choreography and powerful breakdancing interspersed the dialogue, and sometimes, the show was just a dance party. All of the performers moved with commitment and comfort with their own bodies, whether or not all of them were trained dancers.

Third: the “crew” is a powerful thing. Waters, the Mac students and the guest artists could not have created anything like Hip Hop Hopes on their own. The “CREWlaborative” effort made the show real, and refreshingly original. 80s music video-style costumes and fresh mixes of classic hip hop songs met strong dance moves and stories that spanned the globe, in a theater experience unlike anything else I’ve seen.

Hip Hop Hopes: What’s Going On? burst with the color and emotion of a culture that extends far beyond just music and dance. Hip hop is a lifestyle; it’s the pulse that connected 16 students with 16 very different stories, who may not have even met each other without this project. And the people watching them could feel this pulse—not just the kind that drives a pounding baseline or intricate rap lines. It’s community, honesty, and creativity.

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