The Hip Hopera mashes genres into theatrical magic.
by Drew Rowsome
A powerful play anchored by an extraordinary performance is igniting the main stage at Buddies. Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera arrived trailing awards, accolades and awed word of mouth. So why was the theatre almost empty on a Saturday night? Not only inexplicable but also a tragedy: audiences are missing something special.
Perhaps the combination of hip hop and a defiantly queer theatre is an uneasy one. The first ten minutes, in which an excruciatingly amateur rap trio attempt to warm up the audience but just succeed in alienating it, seems to be there to illustrate just how huge the gulf is between rap music and theatre. Their swagger, bravado and well-acted if ill-founded belief in their chances of stardom is a good reference for what is to come, but they are completely upstaged by visuals of Beyoncé and a shirtless Tupac. The tension between gay and hip hop has never seemed wider.
But then Sébastien Heins takes the stage and all preconceptions are exploded. Heins turns the rap vernacular and rhythms into something evocative of Shakespearean iambic pentameter, and it turns out to be a mesmerizing form of storytelling. Of course it is helped immeasurably by the physical prowess Heins brings to the hopera; he is not only a very appealing physical specimen but his energy and lithe movements are a dramatic device worthy of a modern dance narrative. The plot of Brotherhood is an epic one - a ripped from the tabloid headlines saga of sex, drugs and rap n' roll - and Heins conjures a cast of hundreds while maintaining an intimate focus on the two brothers at the centre of the story.
Particularly powerful is a central flashback to how the brothers came to be. '70s era Marvin Gaye floods the stage and an entire history is condensed into minutes of hilarity, horror and the occasional jaw-dropping moment where one just has to wonder, "How did he do that?" Heins is not all flash and singular spectacle, towards the end is a simple monologue, heart to heart, where Heins shows he can hold an audience's attention and be spellbinding using nothing but his voice and emotional nakedness.
The staging is in Buddie's now-trademark deceptively simple style and the lights, projections and Heins himself manage to create entire worlds out of thin air. It is masterful. It is only after the theatrical magic stops and Heins has received his well-earned ovation, that one wishes for one bit more. A show that begins with a number "I Had a Threesome With My Bro," and a performer as sexually magnetic as Heins, could have a lot to say about the two seemingly incompatible 'h's, hip hop and homosexuality. But if Heins can, where Broadway failed with Holler If Ya Hear Me and R Kelly just missed the mark with Trapped In The Closet, so successfully unite hip hop and theatre into a wildly entertaining tour de force: there is hope for both genres and sexualities to cross-pollinate.