Interview by Joshua Breitbart
Will Power is an actor, an MC, a dancer, a writer, and a teacher.
And he combines all of these talents in his plays, which are pushing
the form of hip hop theater to new levels. Using the languages
of hip hop — rhyming, popping, DJing — Will can reach
people that don’t usually check out the theater. With a dynamic
stage presence and compelling characters, he can also reach the
people that do. His most recent work, Flow, is about seven storytellers
trying to pass on their knowledge before a storm wipes them out.
That’s Will — writing plays, holding workshops, speaking
to young people — facing down the challenges of delivering
an intelligent message in a harsh world. Clamor Consulting Editor
Joshua Breitbart caught him on the phone just after the close of
Flow’s second run in New York City.
Clamor: How’d you get started with
theater and rhyming?
Will: I got into theater when I was 10 and I started rhyming officially
when I was 14. We got hip hop a little bit, we kind of got it on
the West Coast. when Rappers Delight came out. That was kind of
our introduction. So we started growing up in the culture. The
big thing in the neighborhood at first was breakdancing or what
we called struttin’ or popping. That was the big thing in
82, 83, 84. So I tried my hand at that, but I was really weak.
That wasn’t really my calling at the time. I’m a better
popper and a strutter now than I was then. I tried to pop, I used
to get taken out, so I said, well me and my boy Sam were like,
we got to change our trade. So we switched over to rhyming and
we had already been taking theater classes and, you know, I’m
a lot more on the vocals so it was almost more of a natural fit.
So that’s kind of how it started, it was almost like survival
of the fittest.
But the things have always been linked for you.
Pretty much, yeah. Even before there was really a hip hop theater,
I’ve always been kind of exploring those two things in some
way, whether that be, we’re doing a talent show or a little
basement party or something like that and we start one song off
with a skit or something. I started a long time ago. And you know
this guy Sun Ra?
One of Sun Ra’s dancers left the group, and she came into
the neighborhood where I was living and she started teaching drama
classes for kids. So that’s where I got my theater start.
She would write these plays and direct them, it was a real like
grassroots kind of thing. We would sell cupcakes and homemade cookies
on the weekend to raise money for costumes. And these plays were
plays. And they were like real fantastical, and surreal, and abstract
- like animals might talk and characters might fly through the
sky, you know? And I feel like I’ve kept that kind of vibe
in me ever since.
Let me jump ahead to Flow and maybe you can explain
how you got it started and how you hooked up with Danny Hoch [the
director] and DJ Reborn [the accompanyist].
I’m from the West coast, but at this time I was living in
Harlem, this was about five years ago and I was walking down the
street in Harlem and I got this vision of these storytellers. I
assume it was West Africa, but I never been to West Africa, so
I don’t know. I got this vision, these storytellers were
kind of running around real urgently, and they were trying to pass
on these stories because it was during a storm. It was the Atlantic
slave trade, which was like a storm, and so they were trying to
pass these stories on to as many people in their village or in
the areas that they could because people were getting killed, people
were getting snatched up, people were turning on other people,
betraying other people. And these stories had the keys to the culture’s
history and the secrets of how to survive in life and all that
kind of stuff, so they were running around telling these kinds
So I started getting these visions for [their] stories. But I
couldn’t tell them in West Africa because I’ve never
been to West Africa and I wanted to modernize them for the hip
hop vibe so I brought ‘em up to date. But they’re still
these ancient stories.
Then I was like, “Wow, I really need to find a director
that understands theater but really understands hip-hop culture
for this show. And I really couldn’t think of [who], and
then I had another vision, in the shower of all places: Danny Hoch!
So I asked Danny if he wanted to direct it and he was like, “I’ve
directed some stuff but not on this level,” but he was like, “I’m
down,” and we hooked up, and he really helped bring so much
stuff out of me. It was his idea to [say], “let’s take
this collection of stories and let’s take this one story
you’ve got about these three storytellers on the run and
let’s make that the premise for all the storytellers, like
the whole show. And each story that you’ve got, let’s
assign it to a different storyteller.” I was like, “Oh
shit, that’s a dope idea.” So that’s what we
spent a year, two years working on, really, like rewriting, rewriting.
That’s how we really started to work and I can’t even
describe how amazing it’s been to work, the two of us, I
mean, we could go places, amazing, I mean we could talk about Stella
Adler and then we could bounce over to Rakim or Nas and bounce
back to Stanislavsky, in relation to the second line on the fourth
I think Flow did this amazing thing of appealing
to people who are used to different traditions as well. Bigger
fans of Rakim and bigger fans of Stella Adler show up.
That’s cool, that’s cool. I’m glad you got that
and I felt that was a real blessed thing that that was the case.
So yeah, so that was really cool. That was that, and then we ended
up doing, before I started working with Danny, I had got together
with a friend of mine, Will Hammond, and we together composed all
the music for the stories, all the beats or whatnot, and then we
started working, and then we pressed it to vinyl, because I wanted
to have a DJ, but I wanted to have original beats. I think this
is the first time it’s ever been done, at least in theater — it’s
done obviously in hip hop music, but in theater where the music
is original music but it’s pressed on vinyl that a DJ is
manipulating — we wanted to really give her [DJ Reborn] the
possibility to really be an instrumentalist.
Let’s say we had a song, like one of the stories, “Blind
Betty,” right? We put the whole track on vinyl, the whole
song, and then we put each instrument by itself on a different
track for like 30, 45 seconds. Then we put combinations of tracks,
kind of like just bass and drums, just the guitar and the bass,
just the guitar and the drums. And so each song has like five to
ten tracks on, the album. And so it really allowed her and I and
Danny, when we got into rehearsal to really have more flexibility
with it. Like a lot of times we were like, “Well damn we
want this character to speak before the song comes out, so let’s
play just the shakerays or this for 30 seconds and then spin it
backwards and play it slow.” It really gave her more flexibility
to be an instrumentalist as opposed to, she had to be confined
to just the way the song broke down, the full song on the track.
This is one of the first times I had pretty serious production
values behind the show. In my previous shows, the production was
minimal, or like hip hop theater a lot of times for the most part
up to this point reflects a lot of the attitudes of hip hop culture
in terms of, like, do-it-yourself. And I’m from the Bay Area
and hip-hop music, hip hop artists in the Bay Area, we’ve
really had a tradition of do-it-yourself.
I’ve seen Flow and your previous show, The
Gathering, and in both you really foreground storytelling, not
just as an act, but as a subject. Why do you think that’s
an important thing to be talking about?
It’s funny because I didn’t realize this but it’s
almost like The Gathering is almost like the prequel to Flow in
some ways, you know like I didn’t really realize that when
I was writing Flow, but The Gathering is about the meeting place
of black men. It’s dealing with this circle, these magical
meeting places. And the Gathering is talking about, when you’re
having a hard time, go to these meeting places for healing, inspiration,
then go back out in the world. And every culture has them. For
black men, I highlighted a few of them — barber shop, jazz
club, and other places. But all cultures have these different meeting
places where they go and you get healed.
But in Flow, it starts off with a meeting place, but then the
meeting place gets blown to hell. So the message in Flow is, what
happens if the meeting place gets eliminated, like physically?
Well, you gotta flow. You gotta use all the stuff you’ve
learned in the meeting places, all those stories and those experiences
and stuff like that to flow. Then you’ll realize that the
meeting place was never really eliminated. It was physically, but
it never was really eliminated spiritually.
And it’s the same neighborhood. I didn’t really realize
that. In the Gathering, I just go to the meeting places of Black
men within that neighborhood, but it’s a multicultural neighborhood.
In Flow it’s the same kind of surrealistic neighborhood,
it’s just that you get to meet more of the people, more of
the cultures, more of the neighborhood.
One obvious contrast between The Gathering and
Flow is that in Flow you take on female characters. I’m sure
that was a special challenge. On the other hand, it liberated you
to talk about a wider range of spaces in the community.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, it was a challenge. I have never done
it to that extent. I’ve written for female characters. I
can’t really remember playing too many, maybe some sketch
comedy stuff, but I’ve never really performed female characters
and trying to do it in a real way of integrity, not just a this-is-a-joke
type thing. And some of the other characters are not necessarily
African American and in some ways that was a challenge for me,
too. In other ways, once I got past the initial fear it was cool
because I grew up around a lot of different cultures in San Francisco.
So it wasn’t like I didn’t necessarily know those people,
I had to just get into it and really be comfortable. A lot of people’s
favorite character is Sweet Pea. I’m like, wow, that’s
like a 15-year-old girl, and it’s cool that I can get into
that and they can dig that and stuff like that. The whole show
was challenging, man, it was a hard show to do. I ain’t gonna
lie to you, be here all easy. This shit was real difficult.
More generally, you have the primary elements of
hip hop present in the production of Flow — your MCing and
dancing or breaking, Reborn’s DJing, and the graffiti that’s
incorporated into the set design. For people who maybe haven’t
heard of hip hop theater before, is it simply the presence of those
elements that make it hip hop theater?
Yep. That’s it, man. Hip hop theater is theater that uses
one of those elements to tell a story. One of those elements as
the basis for language. So if you’ve got some cat up there
doing monologues about some kid in Chicago, some hip hop story,
but he’s just using conventional language, that’s not
hip hop theater. If you’re 35 or 25 and African American
and you’re in a play, it’s not hip hop theater just
because you’re 25, you know what I mean? It’s about
the form, the aesthetic. There’s a couple different opinions
about this in the hip hop theater community but that’s what
it is, basically.
Def Poetry Jam is not hip hop theater. There’s nothing about
that that makes it hip hop theater. It’s good. But I think
people are always wanting to group it together. In all honesty,
sometimes a lot of critics are older and they really don’t
know. This one dude, this magazine interviewed me, he [wrote], “hip-hop
theater came out of the spoken word scene in New York in the mid-’90s.” I’m
like, “I didn’t say that.” Or, [critics say] “Danny
Hoch is the father of hip-hop theater.” I’m like, really?
But they don’t know. So I encourage more young folks to be
journalists in the vibe, in the movement. The ones in our scene
that have a little bit more pulse on what’s going on as opposed
to people making these broad statements.
Yeah, it clearly — even just looking at your
own experience, going back to when you were a kid — it clearly
comes out of a movement with broad participation. But now with
Flow, it’s at a whole other level for you. You’ve gotten
a lot of positive reviews and you’re reaching a broad audience,
including older white people as well as the hip hop generation.
Is that having an impact on your art?
I can’t really say ‘cause it’s kind of happening
now, so I don’t know what effect if any it’s going
to have on my art and who I’m trying to reach. I know that
I’m really focused on young folks and also families. But
if someone older can get something from my story, then that’s
good too. The thing that I really want to try to do is to bring
my audience with me. In other words, I’m trying to broaden
the base, the audience that goes to theater, and try to make them
more young folks. And that’s the challenge.
You’re a youth organizer, in a way.
Yeah, definitely. And a lot of us [in hop hop theater] also are
teachers or like teach workshops. So a lot of times when we go
to a place, like I know when I go somewhere, there’s a heavy
workshop component. My wife, who’s also my manager, she sets
up a lot of workshops and so I’m teaching workshops in the
community and then a lot of young folks come to the show. So we’re
trying to expand it. The challenge though is I’m only one
person. So that’s another reason, on an organizational level
I’m really excited about this new piece I’m working
on because I’m not even in it. It’s a group piece.
And it’s going to be 14 people, so my idea is that they each
go out and do one workshop in the community.
Tell me a little more about that new project.
Man, this one is sick. It’s called The Seven. It’s
an adaptation of The Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus. You know
Aeschylus? It deals with these two brothers that love each other
but then they start bickering. They’re cursed by their father,
Oedipus, and they start to wage war on each other. And I’m
really trying to draw parallels from that time to today. A lot
of things that go on in this ancient text, even though this piece
was written thousands of years ago, a lot of the stuff is still
going on, where these ordinary people get stuck in the middle.
And it talks about the rape and the pillaging, and that’s
going on now in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s even drama
in the United States. Hella security, lockdown. All those things
you can find in this ancient text. So, it’s kind of sad in
a way. But I’m working on it to try to really draw those
parallels and to hopefully leave it on a more optimistic note,
although I don’t know if that’s going to be possible.