As break-dancing worms its way back onto the pop cultural landscape, the ASU theater department is getting into the groove. The Valley's most dynamic young performers – slam-poets, actors, poppers and lockers – are joining forces in the vine, debuting at ASU's Lyceum Theatre on Friday, March 14.
ASU playwriting grad student José Casas developed the work – a combination of spoken-word poetry, hip-hop music, break-dancing and theater – as his master's thesis project. Set in the early '80s in an inner-city L.A. neighborhood, the vine "gives props," as Casas puts it, to hip-hop culture while asking: Can artistic expression salvage young lives?
"the vine is important because it gives younger audiences, especially people of color, a chance to see their stories told honestly," Casas explains. He adds that the play – "a raw, multicultural look at coming of age in urban America" – uses romantic and comedic elements to help convey its meaning. the vine's bottom line? "People have options with their lives. They don't have to turn to drugs or gangs."
Despite the play's message, Casas is reluctant to hop onto a soapbox. "I don't want to get too hokey and After School Special-y," he says. At the same time, he realizes that serious issues shouldn't be sugar-coated for young audiences.
"You need to make the stuff that's harsh really harsh," says Casas. "Kids know more than I do. Some are exposed to so much more than I was at their age. They know what's up, and I don't want to talk down to them."
Though the vine deals with specific social issues, Casas doesn't believe that its gritty, urban focus limits its appeal. "I hope that the themes are universal enough that everyone can enjoy it," he says.
In addition to the academic community, the production involves members of the community at large. Nationally known hip-hopper/break-dancer "b-boy house" choreographed the play, and the lead character is played by Robert Lopez, a dance teacher at several Valley high schools who also works with professional dance companies. The cast includes ASU dance student Ben Howe, co-founder and artistic director of Nebellen, a dance company that brings club and underground dance styles to the traditional performance scene. Casas does make an onstage appearance in the vine, but he's quick to point out that he does not dance.
"I admire break-dancers," he says. "But God didn't give me the rhythm to actually do it." Dancing or not, Casas is the production's driving force. And who knows – if the vine meets with mad success, can a Broadway revival of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo be far behind?