Benito Di Fonzo
Sydney Morning Herald, August 6, 2007
Is hip-hop theatre more valid for today's generation than Shakespeare?
Wire MC in Survival mode.
Photo: Bryan O'Brien
Back in the mid-'80s, talented young actor Morgan Lewis was performing mime at the Opera House and playing Romeo for the Australian Theatre For Young People. Meanwhile, streetwise B-boy Morganics was beatboxing and breakdancing to Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa outside Hoyts and at Circular Quay.
Lewis and Morganics were the same person and, through the emerging genre of "hip-hop theatre", they've come together - not that the paradox was ever more than geographical to Morganics.
"I moved from Circular Quay doing mime and popping and breakdancing routines to, at the age of 14, doing a 45-minute white mime show in the Opera House, so it just moved up the road a little bit," he says.
The 36-year-old has performed in shows such as Crouching B-boy Hidden Dreadlocks and Stereotype. He was in arguably Australia's first hip-hop theatre show, The Bridge, as part of the Metabass N'Breath ensemble in 1996. Reviewers in the US, where hip-hop theatre has become large enough for an annual week-long festival to be held in New York, have noted that the genre in which people speak in tight rhymes is reminiscent of Shakespeare's poetic Elizabethan language.
Morganics agrees with this observation.
"Iambic pentameter, yeah," he says. "I came up doing Shakespeare since I was 12, you're doing your bars and your counts. As artists today we have a new vocabulary and this vocabulary is now being put in a theatrical context.
"I think it's as valid, if not more valid, for us than Shakespeare. For us this is the stuff that we listen to, live, breathe, eat, sleep ... this is what's going on in our lives and we're trying to put it on the stage so people can feel it."
Despite starring in stage productions opposite Toni Collette, Morganics originally moved away from acting out of creative frustration.
"I found that actors didn't have any ideas of their own, which is not entirely true, but I found that if you had your own ideas you'd become a performer, and you'd start making your own work."
Morganics is currently performing in, directing and co-producing Survival Tactics with the Opera House Studio through his company, Invisible Forces. The cast is filled with some of Australia's finest B-boys, rappers, DJs, dancers and singers, including Sista Native (Bounty 75), B-boy Jay (Wicked Force), Wire MC, Nick Power (Gravity Warriors) and Triple J Hip Hop Show and Channel [V] host Maya Jupiter.
The cast also represents the multicultural heritage of inner-city Sydney. Marrickville-raised Tongan soul singer Seini Taumoepeau, also known as Sista Native, says: "We've got myself, some Anglo-Australians from various backgrounds, an Aboriginal man, a Turkish-Latino woman, and a Maori-Romanian who's also part Polynesian."
Sista Native sees hip-hop theatre as a welcome move away from the materialism of much of the hip-hop scene.
"Hip-hop theatre is an area where we can just tell the story, where it's not about your CD or DVD," she says.
"It's a bit more simple in terms of, 'It's theatre, it's the story, and here's our story in this format,' and I think that people really dig it. And it's good getting off the mic, it's a bit more like hip-hop on the street in that sense."
Each performer has created his or her own character, whose story intertwines with the story of other performers. The result is a narrative about life in inner-city Sydney that culminates in a moment of violence.
"Some characters are very close to the performer and some are very different," Morganics says. "I'm not an ice junkie but in the show I am, because that's what I wanted to look at. Once you scratch the surface of that you become aware of more people who are doing that shit everywhere in this country."
Rapper and guitarist Will Jarrett, also known as Wire MC, plays Swerve, an angry young Aboriginal man who has to learn to give and accept trust.
"He's based on where I was at a young age, not letting go of anger and bitterness and letting that consume my life," he says, adding that reading helped him to escape that phase.
"I read a lot and I met a lot of people and I realised you can't blame people, you have to blame actions. That's what [Swerve] learns."