Revenge of a King Is a Thuggish Hamlet

Okay, seriously: I'm too old and too uncool and, frankly, too white to have enjoyed Black Theatre Troupe's Revenge of a King. Herb Newsome's freaked-out retelling of Hamlet was, in a word, annoying. Yo.

The only thing I dislike more than Shakespeare is contemporized Shakespeare, and the only thing I like less than these things is rap music. I suppose there's some argument to be made for completely rewriting the Bard's big play in rapper style, setting it to hip-hop, and relocating it to Brooklyn. But I'd argue first for leaving well enough alone, and secondly for a musical sung by people who can carry a tune, danced by people with a facility for movement, and recited by actors trained to do more than mug and strut.

On the other hand, Newsome's rewrite, now troubling the stage at the Vaiad Center, is done in the spirit of rap, a form so derivative (it is, after all, merely people talking over other artists' disco recordings) and banal (made up of gibberish rhymes that always sound to me as if they've been lifted directly from Froot Loops commercials) that its artistic standards are pretty low.

Tagged, you're it: Revenge is not so sweet.
Laura Durant
Tagged, you're it: Revenge is not so sweet.

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Revenge of a King continues through May 10 at Playhouse on the Park, 1850 North Central Avenue. Call 602-254-2151 or visit Black Theatre Troupe.

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In this Hamlet, Denmark is a hood, and so is its prince. Here, he's Hamilton King, leader of a powerful ghetto gang (read: violent, illiterate thugs) who amuse themselves with MC parties and bloody street fights. After his "pops" is murdered, Hamilton's mother marries sleazy Jean Claude Rameau, and the young man who would be, er, King plots a revenge involving badly metered rhyme and some profoundly cheesy electric boogaloo. Somewhere in there, Ophelia buys a very post-Renaissance abortion and a lot of people get murdered, but not because they have mangled the English language, disco music, and a rather famous piece of theater.

The program promises Divine, but no deceased 300-pound drag queen ever appears. This Divine is instead a young woman who provides one of the few engaging performances as a lady DJ who comments on the action in language that I could at least understand. In the title role, David Tinsley is an affable monster, and his performance is consistent and not unpleasant to watch. On the other hand, witnessing a teenage warlord in a backwards baseball cap rapping, "A nunnery, get me to a nunnery" nearly sent me to my cups. And by the time Hamilton spilled a rap version of the world's most popular suicide note ("To be or not to be/Should I deal with this shit/Or put myself to rest"), I was done.

The entire production is artless: the rhymes mindless and simple, the dance routines strictly Soul Train, the singing straight out of a first-round American Idol audition. The end result is of a bunch of teenage hooligans trying to put on a show — albeit not a very good one — and being repeatedly interrupted by their pesky kid brothers. It's hard to make much more of a "musical" that reduces some of the world's most famous literary entreaties to such as "Ham, lemme rap to you!" In the end, this production (which has been inexplicably invited to the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) is a crime. A street crime. Holmes.

 
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16 comments
renell
renell

Are you serious? Since we both agree you may be too old, too white or too stupid to repect the play as an art form even if you dont like maybe you should judge something you know or can relate to...maybe bingo or golf. I could use the lets celebrate that fact that young black men and women are doing something positive but honestly the cast is filled with with Black Professionals (Social workers, college teachers and engineers). The point is RESPECT it for what it is...ART and since you stated yourself you are too far removed then maybe it should have been judge as an art with out your personal opinion about the art, especially if there is someone out there that reads or trust your opinion that you have now talked out of an experience. And regardless of how awful you thought it was the cast will be like the play states flying highhhh in North Crolina this August.

Gregory Castle
Gregory Castle

Just read the review of Revenge of a King in the New Times. Racist claptrap, and Pela misses the point entirely about hiphop and rap. It's the review that's thuggish.

tityity
tityity

Fuck you Robert L. Pela

Ruth Jones
Ruth Jones

You should have stopped writing this article after the first sentence. It is clear that you wrote based on your lack of several ablilities but I will not stoop to your level to address them. The play was awesome and I enjoyed every bit of it; the fact that is was chosen for the film festival speaks volumes to it's true success.

Mary-Rose Hayes
Mary-Rose Hayes

Regarding Mr. Robrt L. Pela's review of Revenge of a King (is the presumed misspelling of his name an example of just deserts?) I agree with the points already raised and so well expressed. If, as he states at the beginning of the review, he not only dislikes modern interpretations of Shakespeare's plays but the very plays themselves, one wonders why he reviewed this piece in the first place if not deliberately to belittle it. One also wonders what he would have done with "West Side Story" when it was first staged in 1956. Isn't it a wonderful thing that Shakespeare's work is thriving 400 years later, his stories relevant and accessible in countries and cultures beyond his imaginings?I speak for my husband too when I say that, although we're also middle aged and white a new experience is always welcome. We enjoyed "Revenge of a King very much," as we enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm of the performers, the staging and the diverse make-up of the audience.

Robrt Pela
Robrt Pela

Hey. For the record, it was not I who got the title of this play wrong. The guy who writes the headlines for the web edition of New Times typed "Revenge of THE King" rather than "Revenge of A King." (Want proof? Go pick up the print version.)This error has been corrected on this website by our web editor.--Robrt Pela

ET Tynan
ET Tynan

To Mr. Pela:

I fully disagree with your review of "Revenge of a King". Please do some research and introspective thinking before you write on topics you are unfamiliar with. You do reviewers everywhere a disservice with your poorly written piece on the play. I do not take issue with your not liking the play, but I do take issue with your thrown together article that does not actually explain why you did not like the play. Stereotypes and ignorance on a topic do not count as valid reasons. Nor does giving a bad recap of the play with sarcastic remarks thrown in for good measure.

I have nothing more to say to you Mr. Pela.

To the editors of the New Times:

Are you even doing your jobs? Did you even read this half attempt at a review? I blame you and Mr. Pela for not even getting the title of "Revenge of a King" right. The URL is still wrong, please look into correcting that, thank you.

In his article, Mr. Pela claims he is, �too old and too uncool and, frankly, too white to have enjoyed Black Theatre Troupe's Revenge of a King.� He tries to blame his age, lack of coolness, and his race on not enjoying the play. What a cop out. Not every old or nerdy or white person disliked the play. I went to opening night where many of the audience were able to talk to the cast and give their opinion on the play and many of that audience were older or white or both and still managed to enjoy the play. As a white nerdy person, I too enjoyed the play and had no problem following it. If he has an opinion, good or bad, that�s fine, but he needs back it up with something real.

Next, Mr. Pela mentions, "The only thing I dislike more than Shakespeare is contemporized Shakespeare, and the only thing I like less than these things is rap music." Sounds like an unnecessarily biased review headed our way right from the beginning. Could Mr. Pela have at least educated himself on either one of the topics before writing this review? If he did not like the play that is one thing, but to not like it and give flimsy reasons for it makes me wonder if he saw it at all, let alone went to see it without drastic pre-formed notions about Shakespeare and rap.

Why have someone who is not a fan of Shakespeare or rap go and do a review of a Shakespearean adaptation set to rap? That may not be required, but could you have at least not sent someone who is not an embarrassment to your paper? Constructive criticism was absent as was any research regarding Shakespeare or rap. You have egg of your face, New Times. I fault you just as much as Mr. Pela for putting this ignorant, racist article out there.

The author described the play in very questionable terms:"In this Hamlet, Denmark is a hood, and so is its prince. Here, he's Hamilton King, leader of a powerful ghetto gang (read: violent, illiterate thugs) who amuse themselves with MC parties and bloody street fights."

It almost sounds as if this review was written without seeing the play. So, did Mr. Pela even see it? The title of the play was not even given correctly initially, so can anything else he's saying in your paper be trusted if he and or New Times, cannot even copy a name off a playbill correctly? The author called characters in the play that write poetry and perform at a poetry slam, illiterate. Would words like hood (in reference to the Hamilton character), illiterate, and thugs have made it into this review if the performance had been a rapping all white cast? One might claim the author would have used those words anyway, but I cannot help but wonder at the connotation given the article I just read. Maybe one could 'explain' away these words being used, but I find it questionable that they and others like them should appear in the author�s description of Revenge of a King, a Shakespearean adaptation put on by the Black Theatre Troupe.

Further into the article, Mr. Pela claims the characters in the play have �mangled the English language�, though he does mention that that was not the reason for their murders in the play. Given that people today do not speak the same English as Shakespeare, early modern English, I�d suppose one could say we are speaking a mangled English language all of the time. Even the English spoken during the early 20th century is much different than English spoken just 20 years ago, or even today�s English. My grandparents were born in 1902 and I guarantee you we spoke different versions of English. English is an ever-evolving language and poetry and rap are ever-evolving forms of expression. When you combine them, you�re going to need to leave your comfort zone and look at language, and in this case the story itself, a little differently. Welcome to the whole point of combining Shakespeare with rap in Revenge of a King � getting a different perspective.

In conclusion, the article sounded as if Mr. Pela�s preconceived ideas regarding Shakespeare, rap, and race, rather than actual problems with the adaptation, kept him from enjoying the play. Perhaps if he had offered constructive criticism, I would be inclined to give his review more credit. As it is, I cannot.

Sources:

http://www.nosweatshakespeare....

http://www.bardweb.net/languag...

Adelina Zottola
Adelina Zottola

I am pleased to read the commentary on this very problematic review. Not only was this review featured in the New Times, but this morning I was subjected to it on my drive to work as I listened to our local NPR member-station, KJZZ.

I attended the first run of this performance and found it to be a refreshing approach that was both engaging and enlightening. Robrt Pela makes clear that his mind is firmly closed with regard to all things �hip-hop� and �rap��this makes his review far from objective or constructive. His tone is dismissive and belittling and his characterization of the production as �thuggish� both in the title of his piece and in the URL (�Hamlet for Thugs�) reveals a disturbing bias. The comments that have been posted so far on this page spell out the issues with this review well, so I'll end my note with the suggestion that all who are disturbed by this piece also contact KJZZ (mail@kjzz.org 480-834-5627) and request equal time for an opposing viewpoint.

Ann Wertman
Ann Wertman

The other commenters have said pretty much everything I would already, so I'll just keep it short: Pela's review is just plain ignorant and short-sighted. I enjoyed every minute of this play and would see it again in a heartbeat. Don't let this biased review stop you from seeing one of the most innovative and captivating performances in the Valley!

Kara
Kara

Revenge of a King, (not Revenge of the King) contrary to this review was an excellent, engaging, and exciting remake of my personal favorite Shakespeare play. The efforts put forth by the Black Theatre Troupe were distinct and effective-- the rap lyrics, the dancing, and the acting all meshed together nicely into one fantastic production. The beauty in this production was not just in the great performance. This opportunity allowed the actors who otherwise may not have been exposed to Shakespeare a first hand experience with Shakespeare's work and have been encouraged to read Shakespeare's plays. Additionally, this allowed Shakespeare enthusiasts exposure to hip-hop and the culture associated with the genre of music, a lasting positive effect. I encourage anyone interested in Shakespeare to see this production, because truly, it is an amazing production.

Neal A. Lester
Neal A. Lester

The Miseducation of Robrt L. Pela

�Tis a shame and even criminal that cultural arrogance, cultural illiteracy, and just plain ole ignorance come off as informed and informative critique in this very disturbing commentary, �Revenge of the King Is a Thuggish Hamlet.� The impact of Revenge of a King, my second time seeing it, is a harmonious marriage between young and old, between old and new, and works to close the artificial and unproductive divide between what is perceived and considered �high brow� and �low brow.� Spoken word is inherently connected with Shakespeare through a focus on language and the ability of poetry, narrative, and rhythm to capture the complexities of the human condition�pleasures, pains, struggles, and truths. Such a production, as in Shakespeare, potentially connects all, and this production exceeded the expectations and shifted the biases of many in the April 23rd opening night of this second run. The production also served as an excellent centerpiece of this year�s ASU Department of English �Shaking up Shakespeare� celebration of Shakespeare�s 445th birthday. Would that all who don�t understand or appreciate difference be open-minded enough to accept artistic creation on its own merits without condescension or dismissal. I for one am grateful that Black Theatre Troupe Executive Director David Hemphill, also the recipient of the 2009 A. Wade Smith Community Award for Advancement of Race Relations, had the courage to push this envelope and to respond to the needs of diverse communities, young and old. I wish Robrt Pela had witnessed the roaring standing ovation offered in that opening night performance from one of the most diverse audiences I have witnessed at any Valley theatre production in the eleven years I have lived here. I wish that Robrt Pela had been in that opening night audience and participated in that night�s post-performance discussion to feel the energy and the passion of those who shared what this production and event meant for and to them. I wish Robrt Pela had heard audience members respond to and engage with the poet performers throughout the production on that opening night. It was a delightful symbiosis between audience and performer. I wish Robrt Pela had attended our department�s �Shaking up Shakespeare� Friday morning session where we looked at connections between Shakespeare and hip hop as genre. I wish Robrt Pela had heard David Hemphill talk about how this particular production emerged rather unconventionally but as the ultimate collaboration between and among artists. I wish Robrt Pela could hear how racially and culturally insensitive his commentary reads. Would that Robrt Pela understood the words of poet Nikki Giovanni who offers commentary in her edited New York Times bestseller Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat� (2008) that speaks directly to the impact and form of this successful production:

As long as people have stories, there will be rhythm, rap, and hip hop . . . .Today there�s hip hop everywhere. All over this world. And if we could get to Mars we�d probably find Martians, hats flipped back, pants on the baggy side, shirts down to the knees, busting some rhymes, challenging each other in free style. Slamming for the money in the pot that was raised at the door using a language we don�t know but a rhythm we have understood forever. The Hip Hop Nation at home and aboard, across the universe, is kind, strong, intelligent, and free. Rap on, Brothers and Sisters. Find your voice; create the cadence. The square awaits. Lights. Maestro, Please . . .

As a first step in addressing his own miseducation, Robrt Pela might tune in to the new weekly HBO series Brave New Voices for a chance to witness further the healing and transformative power of spoken word from those whose voices are most often ignored or stifled in our adult world. Rock on, Black Theater Troupe! Rock on, Revenge of a King! Your words have spoken volumes to those who get it and appreciate it. Onward!

Dr. Neal A. Lester, Professor and ChairBebbling Family Dean�s Distinguished ProfessorParents Association ProfessorFoundation ProfessorArizona Humanities Council Distinguished Public ScholarDepartment of EnglishArizona State University

Ginger Hanson
Ginger Hanson

I cannot find a single point of agreement between my impressions of the Black Theatre Troupe's production of Revenge of a King and those expressed here by Pela, and I am an advanced student of English literature at ASU who has been fortunate enough to receive an education in Shakespeare from a nationally-recognized scholar in Shakespeare, race, and performance. Pela, an obvious formalist in the most inflexible sense of the word, misrecognizes this production as an attempt to present Hamlet as it has traditionally been performed on white-owned public stages, so when this does not occur in Revenge of a King, he really only has himself to blame for his disappointment. Through this production staged by this troupe of talented young performers, audiences are treated to Michel de Certeau's concept of a "tactic" in action, and that made for a night of exciting and engaging theatre that I won't forget. This very talented troupe has made Hamlet their own, and this re-telling of the play presents a new incarnation of the protagonist as a young man whose actions are decided for him, rather than a protagonist who just suffers from indecision, and that very difference is a powerful critique of the capitalist superstructure in the U.S. which thrives in part on the necessary existence of low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Also troubling in this review is the critic's use of the terms "thuggish" and "illiterate," especially when the critic himself misspelled the name of the play and the name of the center housing the Playhouse on the Park.

Jorden
Jorden

Maybe someone who possesses any tolerance for Shakespeare or hip hop music should have written this review.

How can this review be taken seriously when it was so clearly biased against the show from the start? Heaven forbid the genius of Shakespeare, which is so often confined purely to Caucasian renditions, be given a new perspective by updating it for something so fresh and current as the hip hop infused culture of Brooklyn! Anyone who expects Revenge of the King to be like the original isn't approaching it with an open mind.

I found the play to be very refreshing and interesting. Having acted and worked with the Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa since 1999, I certainly appreciate when Shakespeare is performed well in a classic style. But you can go anywhere across the country and hear melodramatic moaners quote "to be or not to be". Even if stumbles were made by the cast of Revenge of the King, their efforts were innovative and earnest. Reinventing an old story in a new way isn't guaranteed to work and it wouldn't be interesting if it was.

I'm disappointed in Mr. Pela's review since he completely ignores the very purpose of a show like Revenge of the King. Think outside of your comfort zone and hear an old message in a new language. It may not make as much sense at first, but if you listen you're sure to gain new insight.

Alisha Allston
Alisha Allston

If you don't like Shakespeare, why did you even bother? This review is little more than artistic and cultural ignorance on parade. People actually possessing the capacity to appreciate Shakespeare and contemporary cultural performance are excited about what "Revenge of a King" brings to the table of cultural debate and the continued relevance of Shakespeare to humanity. I mean, you could at least get the title of the show right. Is that too much to ask?

Herb Paine
Herb Paine

To profess publicly that one is too old, too uncool, and too white is to advance unnecessarily one's aging process, sentence oneself to irrelevance, and sadly foreclose the opportunity for discovery of self through the stories and performances of others.

However, to employ these limitations as instruments for Robert Pela's derision of the Black Theatre Troupe's brilliant, innovative, exhilarating, and ultimately poignant production of "Revenge of a King" is a disservice not only to the participating artists but also to the general community.

I had the privilege of attending the production's opening night, which, incidentally, was one element of a unique and dynamic collaboration between BTT, ASU's Department of English, and the Arizona Humanities Council, the theme for which was aptly "Shaking Up Shakespeare," and the objective of which was to animate the Bard's themes in the vessel of hip hop. I was not disappointed, nor was the audience which, significantly, was generationally and ethnically diverse.

While I may not be a hip hop aficionado, I do understand that hip hop is an international and generational phenomenon. The themes, stories, rhythms and poetry of hip hop constitute a life style that coexists with those of my generation, and it behooves me/us to understand them.

Numerous variations of Hamlet have been produced. For example, even as we debate the artistic merits of this production, the Hartford Stage Young Company is auditioning for "Breakdancing Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors." Should we not be thrilled that a younger generation is embracing the Bard?

What David Hemphill's artistic vision, Steve Broadnax's direction and choreography, and the performance of Revenge's cast of poets (yes, poets!) demonstrate is the timelessness of Shakespeare's themes, done to a heartful, pounding, humorous, and poignant rhythm. Iambic pentameter is not the sole measure of man; there are other meters that define human experience and need to be heard and understood.

Robert Pela has hit a foul ball when he generalizes rap as derivative and banal. The answer to such misrepresentation lies in education, and, to that end, I wish to invite Mr. Pela to join me in a dialogue with our partners in Revenge -- any time, any place. We have a lot to learn from each other, and perhaps, by sharing our respective perspectives, we'll all gain some greater insight about the message in the play, the politics in the poetry of hip hop, and the imperative for intergenerational dialogue.

Herb PaineExecutive DirectorArizona Humanities Council

Peter Gesler
Peter Gesler

While I suffer from some of the same maladies as the critic Pela, (I'm too white, too old and too uncool), I must not have been wearing his same ethnocentric blinders both times I experienced Revenge of a King. The play is a dynamic fusion of various art forms as well as eras. The modern update doesn't try to be Hamlet. But the provocative, audience pleasing performance does demonstrate how the themes of Hamlet work within a contemporary, urban setting. I applaud the courage and the talents of the writer, the director and the performers. Perhaps if Pela actually understood Shakespeare's play ("To be or not to be" is NOT a suicide note, but a contemplation of why people choose to live, a nuance beyond the grasp of Pela evidently), he might have appreciated the Black Theatre Troupe's meaningful and entertaining production. The critic "doth protest too much methinks."

 
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