The 60-some freshmen and sophomores packed two rows deep all around a small performance space in a Baltimore School for the Arts classroom looked mildly intrigued before the ill-fated tale of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” unfolded a couple feet in front of them.
But as musicians in a corner began laying down a tight rhythmic groove to launch the performance, the kids became more animated. Shoulders started to sway to the punctuated sounds fueling this unconventional staging of the play — a hip-hop adaptation called “Fools and Madmen.”
“Shakespeare is like hip-hop,” said Josh Thomas, who created the piece with Caitlin Carbone. “I think that connection is not too crazy, not out there. The language is so similar.”
Judging by the experience at the School for the Arts, one of several city schools on the production’s tour itinerary, the mix of styles clicked.
When the actor playing Lear, dressed like a vintage Rat Packer, directed an angry rap at the seemingly ungrateful Cordelia — “You ain’t my daughter no more,” he intoned — the students were feeling the beat. And, later, they needed no encouragement to chime in with the character of the Fool for a hard-driving, shout-sing chorus.
But the young audience likewise responded to the original Shakespeare text that is still a big part of the piece, particularly the Bard’s distinctively spicy way of throwing shade, reacting with “whoas” and “ooohs” as insults spewed between characters in this tragedy of need and greed. The play’s violent scenes also triggered explosive reactions.
“Usually, you see a lot of confused faces when they’re watching Shakespeare,” said Rosiland Cauthen, head of the theater department at the School for the Arts. “What struck me at this performance was the enthusiasm they had. Yes, the classics are important, but this was an example of how you can also do something completely new with them.”
Thomas and Carbone, both actors, are down with traditional Shakespeare, too; they were in the cast of “Romeo and Juliet” at Spotlighters Theatre in Baltimore four years ago. During that run, they began talking about collaborating on a way to adapt Shakespeare for young people. At some point, the notion of hip-hop dawned on Carbone.
“When Caitlin hit me up about it, I was, like, hell, yeah,” Thomas says. “I thought the hip-hop element would make it more interesting and relevant.”
The collaborators, who received a grant from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts Creative Baltimore Fund, aren’t the first with such an idea.
A decade ago, for example, English rapper Akala founded the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company to perform adaptations in the United Kingdom. A Canadian organization, Shakespeare in Action, introduced “Shakespeare Meets Hip Hop” to its educational presentations a few years ago.
But for Baltimore students attending “Fools and Madmen” — the production, directed by Mari Andrea Travis and given organizational support from Cohesion Theatre Company, will also be performed for the public — the experience is likely to be fresh.
“Shakespeare never was my favorite, but I enjoyed it,” Nyah Jackson, a Baltimore School for the Arts sophomore, said after the performance. “The way they did it makes it very easy for teens to get into it. And maybe someone will see this and then want to check out the original.”
Carbone and Thomas found the process of shaking up Shakespeare relatively easy — “It flowed,” Thomas said — even though neither had adapted a play before. First, Carbone trimmed “King Lear” from five acts to one (the show lasts about 90 minutes), eliminating or conflating characters.
“When Caitlin finished the script, I saw where things jumped out at me for a song,” said Thomas, who also plays percussion for the show. “It’s definitely not a musical, but a play with music. Sometimes I wanted music to be under the language.”
“Fools and Madmen” — the title comes from a line in the original play — moves between Shakespeare’s play and hip-hop numbers with verses that expand on an emotion or fill in plot details (and occasionally drop an off-color expression).
“Shakespeare’s language is so musical and poetic,” Carbone said.
The qualities in those original cadences became a source of inspiration when Thomas set out to write the musical portion of the work.
“I wanted, like Shakespeare, to use rhythm and alliteration and consonants to make the hip-hop pop,” he said.
Thomas also was inspired by “great hip-hop artists, who are on the same level as Shakespeare today. [This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner] Kendrick Lamar was a huge influence,” he said. “I wanted to make something that could hang with Shakespeare.”
That effort succeeded, judging by School for the Arts sophomore Oliver del Rosario.
“I absolutely loved it. I was really inspired,” del Rosario said. “I think it’s a perfect example of how versatile Shakespeare’s works are. Who doesn’t like cultural synthesis?”