The Arts & Ideas series showcased the first installment of its “Roots/Routes” series with “Shakespeare to Hip Hop: A Performance,” featuring Regie Gibson, former National Poetry Slam Individual Champion, in the McCarthy Center Forum Sept. 17.
Kristen Abbott Bennett and Jennifer De Leon, English professors, kicked off the event with a brief introduction and explanation of how the “Shakespeare Time-Traveling Speakeasy” came to be.
De Leon, who has been a friend of Gibson’s for over a decade, described the show as “a literary concert using American musical forms as backdrop for stories, poems, songs, and humor focusing on the background, mysteries, works, and impact of the most famous writer in the world.
“I know you won’t be disappointed tonight,” she said.
The two main performers were Gibson and his co-star, Marlon Carey, also known by their stage names “Robin Hoodfellow” and “Horatio Everyman.” The two combined elegant vocals with intricate lyrics to remix popular rap songs into a Shakespeare history lesson.
Their voices, in combination with Mibbit Threats on bass, Matt Steinberg on drums, and Graham English on keyboard, created a unique and unforgettable performance that brought the words of William Shakespeare to life.
Hoodfellow and Everyman began the show with a “Shakespearean Mic Check.”
“This is a mic check – a mic check – a mic check – a Shakespearean mic check,” they sang. By putting their own musical twist on a basic mic check, the two were able to set the tone for the performance to follow.
Gibson began by describing the performance, calling it “a visionary timeline so as to find evidence of Shakespeare’s continuing influence and impact.”
He explained how we all quote Shakespeare every day, through our conversations, slang, and phrases, without even realizing it.
“And if you were to bid me good riddance and send me packing, then telling everyone we both know that you wish that I were dead as a doornail/Or that you think I am an eye-sore/A laughing stock. … then you, you, you, and especially you, would be quoting Shakespeare!” Gibson exclaimed.
He then pointed out the irony in how Shakespeare’s drama is still cited almost every day, while his personal life remains unclear.
Gibson explained how everything we claim to know about Shakespeare today comes from his literature and poetry – texts that were written by hand.
According to Gibson, everything is written by hand that leads to human error. Human error then leads to missing information, and that leads to speculation. And when people start to speculate about a figure as prominent as William Shakespeare. “You are inevitably gonna get controversy,” he said.
In “Controversy,” Everyman and Hoodfellow rapped about the many controversies concerning Shakespeare’s life. The actor said the clues to what he did can most prominently be found within his literature, asking the audience – did Shakespeare have to hide who he truly was because he wanted to avoid controversy?
This idea led into the second half of their act, which focused on Shakespeare’s life through his writing.
Gibson and Carey got the crowd excited with their remix of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song, titled “The Great William Shakespeare.”
“Now this is the story all about how one man turned the whole world upside down/and if you’d like to hear then just sit right there/I’ll tell you all about the beginning of the great William Shakespeare,” they rapped.
The song detailed how Shakespeare ended up in London, just as how the Fresh Prince ended up in Bel-Air.
Hoodfellow described the “hustling bustling” London that Shakespeare inhabited.
He then comically listed off all of the qualities of London, both good and bad. “London is thine oyster …you’d better learn to keep thine wits about thee … because she is no joke,” Gibson said.
The two dived into the real meaning of the sonnets, which they claimed were the most “emotionally true” of Shakespeare’s work. Gibson claimed Shakespeare should be remembered not just as a playwright, but as a poet.
According to the duo, the sonnets hint at Shakespeare’s emotional turmoil and heartbreaks. “I love the sonnets because they can really tell you a lot about Shakespeare. … They are more fun when you read them autobiographically,” Gibson said.
The two then performed their own version of “Hamlet,” telling the audience to “Go Ham/Go Ham/Go Hamlet,” offering a humorous twist to the classic play.
This was followed by a remix of the song “No Diggity,” titled “Swagger,” which detailed how Henry V represented real swagger.
One of the highlights scenes from the show was The Shakespeare Character Smackdown – a rap battle that asked the audience to actively get involved and pick a side.
The theme of the battle was from “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” in which Gibson played Oberon and Carey played Bottom.
“You know what, Oberon? It’s over mon. … My cup runneth over, but you are overrun,” Bottom said.
“You must have been Midsummer Night Dreaming, fool. … I’m so filled with Nature’s force, y’all should just call me Oberon … Kenobi,” Oberon replied.
Though it was a close battle, the audience chose Oberon as the winner.
In the closing act, Gibson left the audience with “one penultimate offering” of Shakespeare’s philosophy – “Life is lived quick, so you better live now.”
They closed by welcoming the audience to get up and dance with them to celebrate the life they are living.
The message seemed to sink in with the audience and was effective in carrying Shakespeare’s message.
Abbott Bennett said, “I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s a great way in, and one of the things I emphasize in my Shakespeare classes is that we can’t take him so seriously that we don’t enjoy it.”
Junior Erin Cook agreed.
“I thought this was an amazing opportunity to bring students something they don’t always feel interested in outside of class,” she said.
Lisa Eck, professor of English and director of the Arts & Ideas program, said she was also impressed.
“My mouth hurts from smiling,” she said. “I love the underlying idea of the different musical genres because it shows just how adaptable Shakespeare is. … I really admire what they did and how much labor went into it.”
After the show, Gibson and Carey discussed what this experience has meant to them, and what they want to accomplish.
“What we are hoping for is that people don’t see Shakespeare as something of the past,” Gibson said. “We’re not really bringing Shakespeare alive. Shakespeare is alive, and living, and breathing in what we do today. It’s just a matter of peeling back the layers and recognizing what that is.”
Carey said how one of the most important elements to him is encouraging everyone to enjoy Shakespeare, including younger generations and those who can’t always afford to see performances like this.
“When we’re in the land of emoji and LOL and BRB, ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and ‘thus’ might not be so accessible,” Carey said.
They hope they can be a bridge to the younger generations by tying Shakespeare into their world.
Carey said that they have received local grants that have enabled them to put on performances for local schools. However, in order to do this on a grander scale, they would require national grants.
Both Gibson and Carey expressed how much they love doing these performances, and they would do this full-time if they could. As important as it is to reach success, it is also important to encourage the things that mean a lot to us.
In the words of Gibson himself, “Dance your life, because that’s the only music you will ever have.”