Reclaiming hip hop

This Sadler's Wells show saves the genre from itself.

I now realise (what took me so long?) that the perfect medium for expressing despair, desire, joy, friendship and the feminist credo is undoubtedly hip hop. Nothing quite says I love you like a spot of locking and popping. Krumping is the new iambic pentameter! Such is the eye-opening evidence of Some Like It Hip Hop, currently playing at Sadler’s Wells.

Fittingly, given hip hop’s frisky bricoleur tendencies, dance company ZooNation have taken two existing classics of cross-dressing, Some Like It Hot and Twelfth Night, and parlayed these into something rich, strange and very street.

The bare bones of the story articulate an admittedly crude parable, teaching the kids that books are cool and misogyny ain’t (but then plotting wasn’t Shakespeare’s strong suit, either). We are transported - arguably not very far - to a land where books are burned, or banned, and women demeaned and subjugated. It’s Riyadh, with drum ‘n’ bass. To take on and take down this benighted, boys-own city state our two girl heroes Jo-Jo and Kerri must don Groucho Marx moustaches, and enter the citadel disguised as chaps.

In the show’s final “battle”, the regime’s goons busts some impressive moves but it’s a one nil victory as the girls and the wonks stick it to the patriarchy. It’s not made wholly clear how the girls link to the books, or the books link to the wellbeing of the state, but dance is a mode that laughs in the face of the non sequitur.

This is a show in which everything flips: bodies, beats, texts and genders. Inverting the Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis axis is a stroke of genius. This time it’s the women’s turn to ogle the men (dressed, at one point, in cursory boxers for the night). The way the two performers (Lizzie Gough and Teneisha Bonner) ape a blokeish physicality is an utter joy. The brilliance of their forgeries is that they don’t just look like women pretending to be men. They look like women pretending to be men pretending to be men - exposing posturing masculinity in all its crotch-grabbing nullity.

Bonner is a fabulous dancer, and an even better comedian. As she mans up and gets her swag on, only the slightly wild and shifty eyes give away anxieties about being unmasked. And what real boy doesn’t have these same anxieties?

There are two love stories played out in Some Like It Hip Hop, one of which is between the only bookish guy in town (a charming Tommy Franzén) and Gough, as the cross-dressed Jo-Jo. The lovers perform a delightfully goofy his ‘n’ hers routine: a hip hop pas de deux. Franzén, in his dapper checks and swotty bow tie, dances with the nonchalant grace of an Astaire and a Chaplin. Who wouldn’t fall in love with him?  

Meanwhile the repressive Governor of the mini-kingdom (Duwayne Taylor: sultry, sulky) has demons of his own. In flashback mode, we watch his tyranny take root in the death of his beloved wife. During this vignette, the dancers’ movements start to judder and stutter; glitches appear in the scene, as if it were a video tape degraded in the replaying. It is up to the magnificent Kerri to redeem the bereaved despot, burned up by such memories.

The original score (by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde), which includes some terrific live singing, rips from jazz, funk, blues, rock and rap. Walde himself surfaces benignly in umpteen scenes, singing, chorusing, playing the guitar. Arguably no-one’s more ubiquitous, however, than the unseen Katie Prince, who’s director, writer, choreographer and lyricist. Her physical style is an ebullient and witty mash of moves, as she appropriates everything from cheesy-licious dancehall to acrobatic breakdance. It’s choreography that makes the rest of the West End look old. Her biggest move is the reclamation of hip hop itself, not to mention its vile “bros before hoes” canon. In this land-grab, it’s annexed as a feminist form. Prince’s genre-bender pulls hip hop away from narcissistic, belligerent machismo and re-imagines it as co-operative, romantic and feminine. Some teeny bopper elements in the stalls screamed for the virtuoso (male) dancers like they were rock gods - but time and again the narrative carefully reels them back from such fetishisation.

Marvellously, the audience could not have been - rare in theatreland - culturally more multi, or generationally more mixed (a few, surely, more at the hip op stage?).

Some Like It Hip Hop? Surely All Like It Hip Hop.

A scene from Some Like It Hip Hop (Photograph: Simon Prince)
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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.