On a night earlier this week, Connecticut College theater students gathered on the Tansill Theater stage, put their swagger on, and started rapping about Romeo and Juliet:
"From Pyramus to Thisbe to R and J
A classic tale can be so far away
But it's ours today, to do in person
Star-crossed lovers, the newest version
Sweet and tragic but funny and gory
A modern twist but no West Side BORING!"
Their rehearsal of this hip-hop theater version of the Shakespeare drama bubbled with energy and personality, as the kids rat-a-tat-tatted out rhymes from the funny, sharp script.
The piece, dubbed "I Heart Juliet," is the product of the students' work with the Q Brothers, who are known for "ad-rap-tations" such as "The Bomb-itty of Errors." The Qs have been in residence at Connecticut College for the past three-and-a-half weeks.
Hip-hop theater has been growing in popularity over the past couple of decades, and the Q Brothers have been at the forefront of it all. They were commissioned by The Globe in London to do a version of "Othello" for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. "Othello: The Remix" won Best New Musical and Best Lyrics at this year's Edinburgh Fringe.
The Chicago-based Q Brothers - consisting of GQ and JQ Qaiyum and company members Jackson Doran and Postell Pringle - work together even during an interview, tending to finish each other's sentences and doing the verbal equivalent of collaborating on a script.
While they usually perform in their own projects, JQ says, "This is the first major time we're all here, and we're not in it. That's kind of exciting and its own challenge."
Doran says the Q Brothers are focused on creating an interesting theater piece, of course, but are also teaching. For instance, most of the Conn students hadn't rapped before. JQ says that acting while rapping "is a really, really specific skill."
The whole program started with the Conn students doing their own translation of the Shakespeare text into contemporary language. They developed ideas on what, say, these two families might look like today and why they might be fighting.
The Q Brothers took that as basic inspiration and then wrote the "I Heart Juliet" script. The students are performing it in public shows running through Sunday at the Tansill Theater.
Incorporating hip-hop into a traditional college theater program may be fairly uncommon, but Conn theater professor Nancy Hoffman sees great value in hip-hop Shakespeare, as well as in the significant links between the two sources.
"The play of language is similar between Shakesepeare and hip-hop - any kind of poetry, but especially hip-hop," she says. "There's a playfulness, there's a rhyme, there are different references, there's a bawdiness, there's alliteration, assonance. ... All this stuff is the same. When I think about how Shakespeare cranked out these plays in the style that he did, I think he had the same skills that a really great MC rapper has."
She says the students might be more comfortable accessing hip-hop, but they deal with the same acting lessons they would with Shakespeare - such as, "Don't play the rhyme, play the intention; push through to the end of the sentence; act on the line, not in between."
Conn College brought the Q Brothers in for the residency via Dayton Residency funds and support from the dean of faculty's office and the theater department.
Hoffman, who knew Q Brother Doran when they were both at the University of Iowa, has been interested for a while in how hip-hop and theater blend.
"With hip-hop Shakespeare, the whole thing is done over a beat, and so you can't get off the beat," she says. "You have to get on it and go and be awake and alert and connected to your scene partners."
For "I Heart Juliet," a student DJ is stationed in the audience to spin the beats for each scene.
The storyline and characters in "Romeo and Juliet" are created anew for "I Heart Juliet." Senior Tim Swan says the version of Lord Capulet he plays is money-driven and arrogant. He loves the sound of his own voice. He sips brandy and loves to visit his grand mansion in Thailand.
Doing this as hip-hop theater, Swans says, means "it's beats and raps, but we have to fuel it with realism and make the audience believe it. That's a very hard thing to do."
Swan admits that he's one of those people who finds it hard to understand Shakespeare. While the "Romeo and Juliet" text has been driven toward comedy in this version, it's also written in a way in which the show - and its messages - can reach a wider audience, he says.
As for the rehearsal process, Swan says, "It's been a blast. I've never been more confident to present a show, and I've done theater for going on six years now. What we've done in four weeks is incredible."
The show, he hopes, will open people's eyes to what is possible in theater.
Hoffman says that, as Swan's enthusiasm indicates, the students have been fired up about the project.
"The Q Brothers themselves are really engaging people," she says. "They're fun and crazy, but they work really hard. I think it's been a really exciting way to look at Shakespeare."