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Shakespeare Goes Hip Hop

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Shakespeare Goes Hip Hop

The Q Brothers (Photo by Bill Burlingham)

Two brothers from Chicago are turning Shakespeare into hip-hop comedy. The Q Brothers already had a big hit with the Bomb-itty of Errors. Now they’re tackling Much Ado About Nothing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Only they’re calling it Funk It Up About Nothin’.

PLAY: Much, Much, Much Ado About Nothing.

From the opening number, it’s pretty clear this isn’t your typical Shakespeare. Six actors play multiple roles and they’re called MCs.

Play: I’m Don P, AKA Prince Don Pedro...

The play follows the basic plot of Much AdoAbout Nothing, but with some tweaks. Don Pedro and his men aren’t returning from war – they’re returning from a hip hop tour, a war of words.

Play: One, two, three, four....

Beatrice and Benedick still taunt each other, and fall in love, but here, they’re dueling rappers. Don John still plots revenge.

Play: The rhymes is hot....

It’s a bawdy production, full of pop culture references.

BOYNTON: It’s almost like it’s a remix of Shakespeare, rather than a remake of Shakespeare.

Rick Boynton is the creative producer. He thought the Q Brothers’ script showed potential, and an interesting voice.

BOYTON: They’re contagious, they’re so clever and so much energy, and yet they have this strange dichotomy because they’re so relaxed and yet have so much energy that it’s perfect for working on new material.

GQ: Rick says, ‘I don’t want you guys to come in here all funky and us to theatricalize you or for you to become like the theater. I want you to come into the theater and funk it up.’

That’s GQ, who’s real name is Gregory Qaiyum. He’s an actor. His brother, Jeffery, known as JQ, is a composer and actor. Together, they’re the Q Brothers. They’re also B-boys, or break boys, who embrace and live the hip hop culture.

KALSNES: Why Shakespeare?
JQ: Cause he’s the best rapper of all time.
GQ: There you go.
JQ: That’s it right, yea.
GQ: And the original rapper.
JQ: Yeah.

That love for Shakespeare didn’t start early, at least not for GQ, who had some trouble reading as a kid.

GQ: I really did have quite an aversion to Shakespeare my entire life. And I remember in sixth grade, like, saying to my parents, ‘Why? Why do I have to sit here and try and understand this? It does not speak to me. It doesn’t speak to anyone anymore.’

It wasn’t until he was a student at New York University that he started liking the Bard. He was doing acting exercises, and he’d spend up to 45 minutes on just one line.

GQ: I remember really having it snap. I really fell in love with Shakespeare during that production.
KALSNES: So what do you remember thinking or feeling at that moment about Shakespeare?
GQ: This is music, this is music.

For JQ, it was the way Shakespeare and hip hop celebrate language and word play. He turns to the words of the rapper, Common, to demonstrate:

JQ: Johnny but like a bench, I press on like Lee, I Stan like Lee while you Stagger like Lee. Now there’s Johnny Bench, bench press, Lee press-on and Stan Lee the comic guy and Stagger Lee the blues song. So that’s one line of rap, and that’s when I started to love it is because I saw that in Shakespeare, and those were all the things I loved about hip hop.

He found himself laughing with Shakespeare.

JQ: There’s so much humor in it, even in the dark stuff, even in the tragedies. I saw Othello here and half the time, I’m laughing just because the language is so funny, and it’s such a good puzzle. That’s another aspect it shares with hip hop. It’s sort of always kind of taking the piss out of stuff.

To create Funk it Up, GQ says he locked himself in his garage for two weeks with the Oxford English Dictionary and gallons of coffee. JQ says his brother emerged with a line-by-line translation.

JQ: You just basically rewrote the whole play, but in rhyme, but still in Shakespeare.
GQ: Right, right.
JQ: I was like, what is this man?
(GQ laughs.)
JQ: I was like, OK.

GQ says his brother took a graffiti pen to the script, and together, they funked it up.

They hope to eventually tackle the complete works of Shakespeare in hip hop. And maybe other literary giants, too, like Kafka and Pushkin. The Q Brothers say they want to create more appreciation for Shakespeare and hip hop culture.

GQ: Hopefully, it will keep spreading, and it will make everyone more aware of something beautiful.
JQ: And I think ultimately what we want them to leave the show with is having laughed a whole lot.
GQ: I wouldn’t mind if everyone left with a little bit of a neckache from bobbing their heads.

(Break into freestyle rap.)

Previews of the Q Brothers’ play start at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater tonight.

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