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.

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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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela