“Aeschylus Got Flow!”: Afrosporic Greek Tragedy and Will Power’s
Abstract and Keywords
This essay employs hip-hop theory, specifically the ideas of the sample (incorporating text or music from another source) and the mashup (a free blending of two songs to form a third), to engage and explore the different iterations of Will Power’s The Seven, a rap adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Seven against Thebes. Specifically, The Seven is examined as a mashup that samples Aeschylus. Power does not merely transculturate a Greek tragedy into an African-American context, the different audiences for Power’s work and competing claims on it by audiences, critics, and scholars problematize the relationship between Greek original and twenty-first-century American adaptation, resulting in The Seven being perceived as both the product of shared cultural space and a work that itself creates shared cultural space.
Since I am the last storyteller of my crew
I know just what I have to do
I wanna teach you the old stories
And then you go make ’em new.
Will Power, Flow
Hip Hop Dithrymbs
The Seven began life through a workshop production with the Thick Description Theatre Company in San Francisco, and was performed in August and September of 2001 at the Thick House, Thick Description’s home space (de la Viña 2001: F1). Ironically, Thick Description’s production only had six performers. Subsequently, Power revised and remounted the play in New York in January, February, and March of 2006.1 This Seven was produced with a larger budget and higher production values than the San Francisco production. The show was produced again in San Diego at the La Jolla Playhouse in February and March 2008. Power’s play maintains many similarities with other African-American adaptations of Greek tragedy, but there is one key element of transculturation which separates Power’s play from the others.2
Unlike other Afro-Greek or Afrosporic adaptations such as Adrienne Kennedy’s Oedipus the King, Breuer and Telson’s The Gospel at Colonus, Rita Dove’s Darker Face of the Earth, or Eldris Cooper’s The Tragedy of Medea Jackson, all of which to varying degrees transculturate Athenian narrative into African-American socio-cultural context, The Seven does so through hip-hop, and as a result functions in a different (p. 544) manner than these other adaptations.3 In order to understand The Seven in context, I shall use hip-hop theory as a lens by which to consider it as a hip-hop adaptation. (See Banks and Rankine, this volume.) I would like to propose the hip-hop model of the sample and the mashup in order to understand The Seven. “Samples” and “sampling” refers to the practice in hip-hop music of taking a small portion of a song and either looping it (playing the same sequence repeatedly) or integrating it within a larger tapestry, adding new lyrics over the song. Power’s play is not just an adaptation, it is an intertextual dialogue with fluid and multiple meanings that samples Aeschylus in the same vein as Eminem’s “Stan,” which samples Dido’s “Thank You,” or P. Diddy’s “Come with Me,” which samples Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” or Ice-T’s “The Tower,” which samples the theme from the film Halloween, or even Third Base’s “Pop Goes the Weasel,” which blends The Who’s “Eminence Front” and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” into a multi-sample new work. Each sample builds upon the listener’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of the original. The artist assumes no a priori knowledge of the original on the part of the listener, but if one knows the source, then further meaning is generated within the song. Meaning is not simply generated by narrative itself, or in the space between audience and performer, but also by reference and mashup—the blending of two texts that talk to each other. What is understood depends on whether or not one gets the reference.
A mashup is a song or composition created by blending two or more songs, usually by overlaying the vocal track of one song seamlessly over the music track of another. They can be done via software to produce a new song or it can be mixed (mashed?) live by a DJ. One of the most famous mashup albums is Danger Mouse’s 2004 The Gray Album, a mixing of Jay-Z’s The Black Album with The Beatles’ White Album. I propose, since Power has created his work using hip-hop, that we analyze the work not as a Greek play but rather that we consider The Seven as a mashup that samples Aeschylus. In other words, let us not analyze The Seven on Aeschylus’ terms, or how well it conforms to an idea of the original, but through hip-hop culture in order to see how Greek tragedy as filtered through hip-hop generates meaning for contemporary American audiences.
Rustom Bharucha has argued that all theater, like all politics, is local anyway, being spatially and temporally located and limited by nature (Bharucha 1993: 240). Will Power’s The Seven is much more about twenty-first-century America than fifth-century Athens. Hip-hop culture makes this transhistoricity into new historicity even more fast-paced. In a world where the Black-Eyed Peas are already being referred to as “back in the day,” and when I tell my students about Run-DMC, whom they only know from reality television, De La Soul, or Grandmaster Flash I may as well be discussing John Adams or Marcus Garvey. Hip-hop moves quickly, and five years is a long time, let alone the 25 centuries since Aeschylus. It is this cultural speed of hip-hop, which also indicates that each iteration of The Seven transformed the one before, even as it built on it. The La Jolla Seven is not only adapted from Aeschylus, it is adapted from the San Francisco Seven.
In that sense, I would like to consider The Seven as a fluid text that changed as it continually changed its locality as it was performed in different years in different cities, (p. 545) although not always for the better, and while looking at the larger implications for studying Greek tragedy in the African diaspora. I would also like to frame it in context of Power’s earlier work, which also plays with sevens and flows and narrative.
In the critical response to The Seven, we see a larger assumption that Power has adapted a classical European text to an African-American context, reducing the act of adaptation to a simple ethnic binary: what was European is now Afrosporic. I would like to argue for a much more complex understanding of The Seven, especially considering that Power himself does not see the Aeschylean original, The Seven against Thebes, as being solely a European text. He argues for a more complex understanding of Greek culture and I, for one, will accommodate him here in trying to understand what The Seven is and how it functions.4 I ultimately want to consider the different audiences for Power’s work and the above-mentioned competing claims on it by audiences, critics, and scholars.5 Any discussion of The Seven as an example of hip-hop culture, however, is further problematized by Power’s own identity as a major figure in hip-hop theater, a multiple-grant recipient, whose work appears in major theaters and is reviewed and considered by major media and further problematized by the very locales mentioned above, in which The Seven has been performed.6 Who are the intended and actual audiences for The Seven?
Previews and reviews of The Seven in newsprint and online have frequently been concerned with some sense of competing claims of authenticity, depending on the individual critic’s own concerns and what he or she privileges: “Is it Greek enough?” “Is it street enough?” “Is it really Aeschylus?” “Is it really hip-hop?,” and “Is it really hip-hop theater?” One might note the New York Times’ critics’ historic distrust of anything hip-hop near a “legit” theater building. A single example, the title of Bruce Weber’s 1999 review of The Bomb-itty of Errors: “Rap is to Shakespeare as Bomb is to Comedy,” should suffice to demonstrate where the mainstream (read: older Euro-American) critics fall, although things have improved slightly in the past decade. The critical response has been an understanding that Power takes a Greek tragedy (albeit one not very well known) and transculturates it into a “black thing.” But is that The Seven’s teleology: white to black? The answer is more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.”
I argued in Shakespeare and Youth Culture that hip-hop expropriations of Shakespeare (and for that matter Shakespearian appropriations of hip-hop) are rooted in what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. refers to in The Signifying Monkey as “signifyin(g).”7 (See Powers, this volume.) The trope of signifyin(g) is the trope of the talking book—the “double voiced text that talks to other texts” (Gates, Jr. 1988: xxv). Seven is certainly a talking book in Gates’s sense. “The impetus of African-American signifying,” states James R. Andreas, Sr., “is the search for the ‘black voice’ in the ‘white written text’” (Andreas, Sr. 1999: 105). And certainly critics on both coasts saw in The Seven an African-American appropriation of a “white” text. Yet, I would like to argue here that such a simple binary may work for Shakespeare, who is uncontestedly a European playwright linked to a colonizing/imperialist culture, but does not necessarily apply to Greek tragedy, which bears a more complex relationship to Africa and African-America. I argued in Athenian Sun in an African Sky that Shakespeare is perceived in Africa as colonial culture, but Greek culture (p. 546) is perceived as not having “the taint of imperialist Europe and the national literatures of the colonial powers,” and, following Bernal, many Africans perceive Greek culture as African in origin.8 Is African-American Greek tragedy simply, pace Gates and Andreas, looking for a black voice in a white text?
In Black Dionysus: Greek Tragedy and African American Theatre, I argued for three models of understanding Afrosporic Greek tragedy: black Orpheus, which works as a simile (“this African thing is like this Greek thing”), black Athena, which claims Greek culture is actually derived from African culture and therefore Afrocentric Greek tragedy reclaims a stolen legacy, and black Dionysus, which sees Afrosporic Greek tragedy as “a form of self-aware intertextuality” and “a means by which diverse communities might be encountered in public space and the historical forces that have shaped them might be exposed” (Wetmore 2003: 44, 45). In other words, it is not just black and white.
Will Power, appearing on The Colbert Report on September 18, 2006, argues for a modified “Black Athena” approach to understanding the relationship between Athenian cultural material and Afrosporic history, specifically as it related to The Seven:
It’s really interesting because the ancient Greeks were not black, but a lot of the ancient Greek myths—we don’t know what they were. But they were actually before Greeks …
You’re talking about Aeschylus, Sophocles—they were what you call “Greek” but Oedipus and a lot of the myths are from a time when they weren’t even considered to be Greek. They were like a different people; they were the Greek’s ancestors, so to speak. And they did have connections to Phoenicia and Egypt and other places. I don’t know if they would be considered “black” because there were no “African-Americans” a thousand years ago, but there were Egyptians, you know? So I think they had these kind of connections, y’dig?
In other words, Power sees Greek tragedy as already a white voice in an African text. Athenian drama is a European appropriation of older narratives that are at least partially North African in origin.9 One may agree or disagree with Power’s thesis, as the responses to Bernal’s Black Athena show, but we ought to evaluate Power’s project based on his suppositions. In other words, it does not matter for the purposes of this chapter if the dictates of Afrocentric Classicism are true, what matters is that Power believes them to be true. And for Power, it’s not a reappropriation but a more complex mashup of a narrative that was already a mashup. Not “is Greek tragedy African” but rather “what does the fact that Will Power lays claim to Greek tragedy as connected to Africa mean for his work” is the question we must ask. Power uses hip-hop music and culture to create a new version of narrative that Aeschylus had already sampled from the prehistoric Greek culture which was connected to or possibly even originated in North Africa.
In other words, Power would argue he is not signifyin(g) in Gates’s sense—he is not looking for a black voice in a white text. He is adding a black voice to a white voice speaking an originally brown text (if you will pardon the color analogy being taken to a ridiculous level). Again, let us not reduce this down to a simple binary. In Power’s own words, Aeschylus’ play is “different” and “connected.” Space does not permit a deep (p. 547) discussion of Greek and Egyptian notions of identity and ethnicity, but suffice to say when we engage in the study of classical texts we must be very careful of imposing modern notions of ethnicity, nationality, color, and race on older cultures, as Power himself wisely notes.
Audience and Identity—What Set You Claimin’?
The central concern voiced by both Power and his critics was the audience, their identity, and how their understanding of Greek tragedy and hip-hop would shape their understanding and experience of The Seven. Audiences are strange things: groups comprised of individuals who neither have a uniform response nor a uniform background. Even from night to night in the same theater the audiences change and thus the production and its received meaning changes, particularly since plays don’t mean but rather generate meaning (Wetmore 2003). The change of locale and hence the change of audiences for a particular show thus further changes the meaning of the show and, for the most recent incarnation of The Seven, “The shores of San Diego County are a far cry from downtown Manhattan,” as David Ng reports (Ng 2008: F4). While several critics and even Power himself acknowledged that part of the problem in New York was sustaining a youthful, urban (read: young, hip, mostly African-American) audience, and that the New York theater audience is, in Meineck’s delightful turn of phrase, “geeky, nit picky and increasingly elderly,” with a mixture of hip Brooklyn kids on some nights, if the production was lucky (Meineck 2006: 146).
The La Jolla Playhouse, on the other hand, has a mostly older, suburban audience. Power was quoted as saying he thought there would be an audience for the show in Southern California: “granola bohemian cats” who “might really dig it.”10 Anecdotally the audiences with which I saw the production were mixtures of older, Euro-American audience members, older African-American audience members, and younger audience members of many ethnicities. I suspect that the last were there first and foremost as theater aficionados and tangentially or not at all as “hip-hop heads”—this was not the same crowd as the rapper Nas’ concert a week later.
Which brings me to the question, who is the audience for The Seven, particularly in San Diego? The short answer is that a hybrid form creates a hybrid audience. Some folks know hip-hop, more know theater, and many know both. But The Seven functions less as a traditional African-American adaptation of Greek tragedy (if there is such a thing) than what I would call a meta-mashup of hip-hop and Greek tragedy, functioning simultaneously as both.
On the one hand, the narrative comes from Aeschylus, and the Greeks are responsible for drama-based theatrical performance. And some critics even saw in The Seven the closest approximation an audience can come to original Greek performance in a (p. 548) relevant social context. Michael Peter Bolus correctly observed that “The Seven dramatizes the idea that modern practitioners must adopt the totality of the Greek tragedian’s conception of the theatre—an understanding issuing from a comprehensive employment of drama, music, and dance as integral to achieving the desired emotional, intellectual and aesthetic effects” (Bolus 2007: 123). Will Power’s conception of The Seven matches Bolus’s conjectured Greek tragedian’s conception: rhythm, ritual, dance, music, drama, narrative enacted in front of a civic audience. So Greek theater fans can find much to appreciate in The Seven. Before we tackle the issue of hip-hop, however, I wish us to examine our ideas about audience once more.
Charles Isherwood, for example, also cannily admits that the “white, middle-aged, still figuring out the iPod-thing” average New York City theater-goer “probably isn’t all that conversant with the conventions of classical Greek theater, either” (Isherwood 2006: B4). As an avid theater-goer myself, I do not think I have ever remarked, “Wow! What a great use of the ekkeklema”! What audiences may be experiencing with The Seven is not the performance of a specific Greek tragedy but the performance of the idea of Greek tragedy.
Peter Meineck has remarked that to do any kind of adaptation of Seven against Thebes is in itself “almost unbelievable” (Meineck 2006: 145). I would agree, but with a caveat. The beauty of Aeschylus’ play is that the backstory is known, the idea of Greek tragedy is known, but the play itself is not. A hip-hop Antigone or a hip-hop Medea is a tricky thing. Knowledgeable audience members know the play well, have most likely seen previous productions of the original and perhaps even other adaptations, and most likely have strong ideas about those plays. But even those average theater-goers well versed in classical texts are not likely to know Seven against Thebes, and many Classicists I suspect would be so delighted to see the play mentioned anywhere that a popular adaptation might even be seen as a good thing—a doorway into Aeschylus rather than a desecration of a beloved text. Additionally, theory must give way to economic reality: after Shakespeare, Greek tragedy is the most multicultural bankable adaptation material. Adapting a lesser-known Greek tragedy gives one all the cachet of adapting a Greek tragedy with the freedom to rework a story known only by its bare bones at best. And what Power has done is not so much adapt a specific text (although, admittedly he has done that), as present the audience with the idea of Greek tragedy in hip-hop form. He has mashed up Greek tragic text and practice with hip-hop culture and practice.
Music is one of the places where the play most evidently moves from Aeschylus’ Greek theater to a modern, hip-hop theater, although music is also a mark of the choral role in Greek drama. The music changed from production to production of The Seven, as the sound of hip-hop changed from 2001 to 2006. Even the two year transition between 2006 and 2008 required that the music be rewritten/remixed to keep up with current hip-hop sounds. What worked in 2001 and 2006 sounded dated or “wack” in 2008. Thus, in order to maintain freshness, Power and his collaborators insisted that the music sound contemporary to hip-hop ears. I politely suggest that the vast majority of average La Jolla subscribers could not tell the difference between 2006 beats and 2008 beats, but they were not the only intended audience. In order to maintain authenticity for hip-hop (p. 549) theater– not the authenticity of the Greeks but the authenticity of the beats—the music had to be contemporary. Greek tragedy has become “universal,” but at its origins was highly temporal. Hip-hop, still in its cultural infancy, in a sense, has no sense of transhistoricity yet. Thus the need, for authenticity’s sake, to update the sound of the show for San Diego.
Mashups and References
I think it might also be useful to consider The Seven as expanding on specific themes in Power’s earlier work, especially his solo show called Flow, which brought him to national attention as it toured the United States and received much critical attention. It began with the idea of seven individuals joining together as well: “Seven | There were only seven, y’all | only seven storytellers in the neighborhood | I said/there were only seven storytellers in the neighborhood, y’all” is how Flow began. Power then embodied seven different individuals, all of whom told their own individual stories in their own individual ways. Concluding with the epigram to this lecture: “Since I am the last storyteller of my crew | I know just what I have to do | I wanna teach you the old stories | And then you go make ’em new,” I would argue this might be construed as the central theme both of Flow and of Power’s work overall: the power of storytelling and the need for both artist and community to make the story one’s own. Hip-hop and Greek theater have storytelling in common.
In fact, the Aeschylean original does not dramatize the story that Power’s does. Instead, it tells the story through narration. The original play was first performed in Athens in 467 bce, the third of a trilogy about the Labdacids (Laius, Oedipus, being the first two). The play shows Eteocles waiting for his brother Polynices to attack, interacting with the chorus. There is no Oedipus, no Polynices, and the eponymous seven are offstage for the main event. Much of the stage action of Aeschylus’ play is simply monologues and dialogues about how Eteocles and the chorus feel about the approaching army and Polynices, lengthy descriptions of the seven champions and their shields, and the Thebans who will face those champions. The battle between brothers takes place offstage and the results are reported, as almost always in Aeschylean tragedy, by messenger.
Power dramatizes everything Aeschylus simply narrates. In The Seven, we are introduced to all seven champions. Polynices is present, as is Oedipus. It is this reintroduction of the mythic characters as dramatic presences in the play that transforms Aeschylus’ narrative into a mashup of Aeschylus’ text, the original myth, and hip-hop popular culture. Suzan-Lori Park’s theory of “rev & rep”—revision and repetition—is relevant here. Repeat with variation, and meaning is found in difference. To this pair of dramatization of narrative and repetition we might add the third aspect from hip-hop: reference. A key aspect of hip-hop rhyme is popular culture and historical reference. Whether Will Smith’s “Mohammed Ali told me I’m the greatest,” Kanye talking about a guy you can see “any given Sunday” (in a song in which Jaime Foxx is referencing and covering (p. 550) Ray Charles, as well, where Oliver Stone’s movie by the same title—starring Foxx—is expected knowledge), or the Fugees, remarking that they are “running through Crown Heights screaming out ‘Mazel Tov,’” a reference to the Crown Heights riots of August 1991.11 We may read the line on the surface level, but the reference reframes the lyric and hence the meaning into a much larger context. Will Power reframes Aeschylus’ story using the techniques of rev, rep, and ref.
I wish to briefly illustrate rev, rep, and ref through three characters from The Seven not present in Aeschylus’ original that demonstrate how Power’s mashup works: the DJ, Oedipus, and Polynices. In the first place, the DJ is one of the original four elements12 and the person who not only provides the beats but who also shapes the story to be told. In the case of the seven, the story begins with the DJ. She frames the entire narrative with the notion of a mashup: “Let me tell ya who I be | The one who makes Shakespeare jam with James Brown … There are no two worlds I cannot mix | I am the DJ.” She then proceeds to play a record of a sonorous voice reciting lines from the Aeschylus original: “O house of endless tears | O hopeless end | It is the curse of your father that bears fruit in you | And the harvest is no blessing.” This “sample” reminds us of the original. But like all good DJs, Power and his onstage alter ego, the DJ, loop it, flip it, and reframe it: “Yo, kinda pessimistic, right? But his voice sound tight. Kinda like Freddy Kruger if he went to Harvard or somethin’.” The Seven is as much comment on Greek tragedy and the popular idea of how it is performed as it is actual adaptation of Greek tragedy. Power offers this mocking recording to demonstrate a reverence for the Classics in direct contrast to his own, playful, hip-hop approach. The dirge on the record contrasts with the hip-hop beats of the other record on the turntable in self-referential celebration of the power of hip-hip to make Greek tragedy seem more alive.
Hip-hop allows for self-referential criticism and self-conscious reference. The record was pessimistic, but the voice is tight. The play then reframes Aeschylus: Freddy Kruger at Harvard. With this construction of the original as a “pessimistic” voice, Power/the DJ have done more to shape the reception of Aeschylus than any scholarly introduction to the play. The reference only works if you know who Freddy Kruger is and what Harvard is, but, to be honest, writing for a twenty-first-century American audience, Power uses very recognizable references to ground Aeschylus in an American (and specifically African-American) context.
The DJ, working with the chorus, who will also play the seven champions as well, tells the story of the house of Oedipus. Here Power as DJ again brings in the myth rather than the text. In a very controversial and problematic (considering the audience) appearance, Oedipus himself enters, pimped out with sunglasses and cane. Peter Meineck rightly sees the character as transcending stereotype, becoming “a compelling physical manifestation of a visceral and destructive curse” (Meineck 2006: 154). Others see a predominantly white audience seeing a stereotype of urban African-Americans confirmed by the character. Yet I would note, Oedipus also works because the character as represented in the play also fully embodies the double-coded referential world of hip-hop.
Seemingly dressed as a 1970s Blaxploitation pimp, Oedipus (compared by critics to Rudy Ray Moore and his character Dolemite, Superfly, or Huggie Bear, among others), (p. 551) tells the crowd, “Y’all don’t know who you fuckin’ with,” and that he was “the one and only motha fucka,” both of which received a laugh from the audience as lines that work on multiple levels as the aforementioned hip-hop references. On the one hand, Classicists can appreciate that Oedipus literally did not know “with whom he was fucking” and he may be the only figure in both literature and history for whom the epithet “motherfucker” is not an insult but an accurate description. It is playful both in its referentiality and in its obscenity. Thus, on the other hand, it is funny because someone just employed lewd and vulgar language in the La Jolla Theatre, and the pleasure of saying and hearing dirty words is one that never quite leaves us, no matter our level of sophistication (right, David Mamet?). In addition to the dramatic irony it provides and its sample of the Oedipus myth, obscenity also gives Oedipus street-cred and links him to a long line of blaxploitation heroes and rap artists. Some examples include Oedipus’ line “I hear this cat Shaft is a bad mother … Shut your mouth.” Here Oedipus samples famous lyrics from Richard Roundtree’s “Theme from Shaft,” which has a good deal of influence in the rap world. Like the critics, I also saw Superfly and Dolemite in Oedipus, but I also saw rappers DMX and ODB. Power plays on stereotypes of black rappers and cinematic pimps. By doing so, Power not only signifies and double codes through this character, but he is also relying upon multiple references and referents. In the end, Power encourages a proliferation—rather than a limiting—of such cross-references.
Oedipus’ own use of multiple names for himself was very much in keeping with hip-hop culture, in which an individual has multiple identities and multiple names: Christopher Wallace is “Notorious B.I.G.” and “Biggie Smalls”; Marshall Mathers is “Eminem” who is also “Slim Shady.” Oedipus is all of the references the audience conjures: the Greek Oedipus, the rapper, the pimp, the bad motherfucker. The hip-hop artist exists in the past, present, and future simultaneously by speaking of the past in the present while making future promises. The DJ also calls Oedipus “The original ODB,” a reference to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the stage name of Russell Tyrone Jones, a member of the Wu Tang Clan. ODB’s name itself came from a 1980 Taiwanese martial arts film, Guai zhao ruan pi she, released in the United States as Ol’ Dirty & The Bastard, which Method Man asserted was specific to Jones as there was “no father” to his style which was playful, profane, and free-associative. The line goes under the radar of the individual who does not know the reference, but it creates a whole new world of meaning for one who does (and again, tangentially, bore out my initial feeling that Oedipus was not just a 1970s pimp but also a contemporary rapper posing as a 1970s pimp). Hip-hop culture is nothing if not aware of African-American cultural history and more than happy to play with and against, embracing stereotypes, sometimes to subvert them, sometimes reinforcing them, often in a way that the “granola bohemian cats” audience members most likely would not understand.
In addition to the DJ and Oedipus, Polynices is a character in Power’s play. Polynices is also not present in the original except as a corpse and by report, yet Power makes him a central figure in his version. The play begins with Polynices and Eteocles promising to transcend the family curse and rule together peacefully. It ends with brothers killing each other. One reviewer of the San Francisco production read the play as “a forceful (p. 552) contemporary look at the cycle of violence among blacks” (de la Viña 2001: F1). This reading remains present and viable through New York and San Diego. In his review of the production for the Los Angeles Times, theater critic Charles McNulty wrote: “The question here is, can a man transcend a miserable and mind-colonizing father? Of course the answer is already decided. The interest is in how the catastrophic psychology plays out” (McNulty 2008: E3). The play and Polynices’ role would continue to develop and evolve, however.
Will Power remarked of the difference between the two productions, “It went really well in New York, but we ran out of time and money. We didn’t get to do everything we wanted to do. So coming here [to LaJolla] has been great.”13 The 2008 production featured substantial revision, especially of the second act. The final fight between Eteocles and Polynices, in New York a complex dance-combat routine choreographed by Bill T. Jones, received an additional opening ritual “designed to convey a sense of recognition, physical hostility and emotional ambiguity all at once”:
“I have this really ritualistic chant, kind of like the Wu-Tang Clan,” [Power] says. When the brothers meet, they begin to exhale rhythmically using heavy, audible breathes, getting louder and faster as they circle each other. The breathing gradually escalates to a kind of chanting that segues into the full-on fight sequence.
(Ng 2008: F4)
Polynices thus moves from offstage presence in Aeschylus to equal stage time in Power. What was a quick dance denouement in New York was expanded into a full ritual before battle for San Diego. By adding this sequence to the mythic struggle between brothers, Power moved the piece from comment on black-on-black crime to a full series of references to everything from Cain and Abel to Biggie and Tupac to Iraq. While adding these elements to the narrative of Seven against Thebes, Power does not merely recreate the Aeschylean original with a hip-hop soundtrack, he also creates a perspective on violence in society.
So, what does it all mean?14
I have argued before that African-American Greek tragedy is a blending of the local (African-American culture and history), the original Greek text (whatever that means), and the “African”—a cultural connection to the motherland (at least for those who profess Afrocentric Classicism) that imbues the appropriation with a link not just to ancient Athens but to ancient and contemporary Africa. The Seven, I believe, while embodying this definition of African-American Greek tragedy, also transcends it and leads us to a new way of thinking about African-American Greek tragedy. Will Power’s meta-mashup lives in a new cultural and critical space. It is as much comment on Greek tragedy and its production and reception as it is adaptation of Greek tragedy.
(p. 553) As Sabrina Brancato wrote in a recent issue of Research in African Literatures, new terminology and new theories are emerging to deal with the complex reality of Afrosporic authors, particularly given the complexities of ethnic and national identity in a multiracial world (Brancato 2008: 1). She terms this literature “Afro-European” and uses this term to identify the fluid nature and multiple sources for emerging literatures, not just dramatic, not to mention the varied locales in which Afro-European literature may be produced (Brancato 2008: 1). For example, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka now both live and teach in Southern California, the former at the University of California, Irvine, and the latter at my own school, Loyola Marymount University. Athol Fugard, that most South African of authors, splits his time between Ireland and Southern California as well. His three most recent works have all premièred in Los Angeles. Cornell West refers to the locale in which such works are being created and disseminated as “shared cultural space” and refuses to reduce that space to simple black/white binaries. I would like to make a plea, in conclusion, to consider The Seven as both the product of that shared cultural space and a work that itself creates shared cultural space. This model, therefore, offers a new way to think about Greek tragedy in the Americas while also constantly reframing itself. By using sampling and by mashing up Aeschylus’ text with African-American cultural history and social concerns, Power has created an adaptation that speaks to contemporary American audiences, even if the individual audience members hear and understand different aspects of that text. The self-referential aspect of hip-hop allows for commentary on both Greek adaptation and on the resulting text itself. Moving beyond a simple African-American/Euro-American binary and recognizing the shared cultural space of both hip-hop and Greek culture allows us to understand texts such as The Seven as American texts with multiple points of origins and multiple constituent audiences.
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(3.) Carl Weber defines “transculturation” as “a transfer of culture” from one society to another in which the appropriated text is initially deconstructed and then the “findings” are rearranged according to the codes of the target culture, and the disappearance of the original forms from the adapted text (1991: 34). The above mentioned texts all transculturate Athenian dramatic text into African-American cultural contexts. The Seven, as this chapter argues, has hip-hop culture as its target culture of transculturation.
(5.) I am, following Adam Krims, forced to note that my own identity, as both a theater scholar and a Euro-American hip-hop fan, “exacerbates the tangle of objective situational impossibility,” and I am concerned that when we consider Power’s blend of hip-hop culture and American understanding of ancient Athenian culture, we are in danger of increasing the distance “of commodified forms from the underprivileged creators of these forms”—Krims 2000: 6.
(6.) “Hip-Hop theater” it should be noted, is a contested term, with Danny Hoch arguing that it is not theater with hip-hop music in it but rather theater that speaks to the hip-hop generation using its own language and tropes—Hoch 1998. See the introductions to Banks 2011 and Hoch 1998 for analyses of what constitutes hip-hop theater in opposition to more mainstream theater or theater that employs hip-hop music without being hip-hop theater in and of itself. See also those texts for exemplary hip-hop dramas.
(8.) Wetmore 2002: 21. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987) began the scholarly Afrocentric Classicism movement which argues that Greek culture is derived from North African culture and thus all western classical culture is African in origin. Appropriating Greek texts, therefore, is perceived as a use of African, not western, cultural material.
(11.) The respective songs and their references are Will Smith, “Getting’ Jiggy with It” (1998) in which Smith, while singing his own praises, cites Muhammad Ali’s famous line, “I’m the Greatest”; Kanye West, “Gold Digger” (2005), referencing the Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday about a football team (and thus implying he is rapping about a well-known football player); and The Fugees, “How Many Mics?” (1996), which references the ethnic makeup of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in which Caribbean-Americans and Orthodox Jews live in the same neighborhood (although it might also be referencing the Crown Heights crisis of 1991, in which a rabbi’s car struck and killed an African-American child and in retaliation a young rabbinical student was stabbed. The neighborhood erupted in racial tensions and thus for a young rapper to say he can “run through Crown Heights screaming out ‘MazelTov,’” indicates his fearlessness and bravado.).
(12.) The “four elements,” as they are known, are the DJ, who spins the records, the MC, who raps, break dancing, and graffiti. Hip-hop heads consider them the pillars of hip-hop culture.
(14.) This line is in and of itself a hip-hop reference, as it is repeated numerous times during “The Magic Number,” one of De La Soul’s hits off of 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), one of the seminal alternative hip-hop records, now considered a masterpiece (a “classic”?) by hip-hop heads.