Review: A hip-hop take on Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers

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Review: A hip-hop take on Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers
A scene from the Joyce Theater revival of Rennie Harris’s “Rome & Jewels,” in Manhattan on Feb. 7, 2023. “Rome & Jewels,” revived, established Rennie Harris as a gifted and canny choreographer of street styles for the concert stage. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- Hip-hop is now established enough to get an all-star 50th-birthday celebration at the Grammys. Hip-hop concert dance isn’t quite that old, but it can look back a few decades, as with the revival of Rennie Harris’ “Rome & Jewels” at the Joyce Theater this week.

When this adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” had its debut in 2000, it was Harris’ first evening-length work, and it established him as the most gifted and canny choreographer exploring and expanding the possibilities of street dance in a concert setting. In that realm, he’s still unsurpassed, but “Rome & Jewels,” slightly updated and still vital and affecting, is showing its age.

The concept is classic. As in “West Side Story,” Shakespeare’s warring families are rival gangs. Rome falls in love with Jewels, who is Tybalt’s girlfriend rather than his cousin. The gangs go to war, and almost everyone dies.

The show is a blend of spoken word and dance, and the mixing of Shakespeare’s text with street vernacular is agile, engaging and sometimes comic. (“She speaks and yet says nothing/What’s up with that?”) It’s arresting to hear the prologue as Rome mugs an old acquaintance, and the theme of love versus violence is sharpened by the context throughout. On these mean streets, love seems not to have much of a chance.

Jewels isn’t even visible — no one plays her. We only sense her, like a dark twin star, in Rome’s motions. She’s implied in conversations, but we don’t hear her side. This is a male world, though in this update, the gangs include women (one is Harris’ eldest daughter, Miyeko Urvashi Rennie Harris).

The gangs express their rivalry through dance: Rome’s Monster Q’s doing hip-hop and Tybalt’s Caps B-boying. The climax is a dance battle with everyone taking escalating turns in the center of the circle. But before that, we get a kind of intermission, as the onstage DJs (Evil Tracy the International Showoff and Razor Ramon) give a crowd-pleasing exhibition of turntable wizardry, scratching and spinning behind their backs and with their faces.

There is plenty of talent and skill. Several original cast members have returned, most prominently Ozzie Jones, who brings his gravitas to the choruslike Old Man, and Rodney Mason as Rome. Mason still has a mercurial charisma, convincing both in love-struck wonder and when coldly ripping out Tybalt’s heart. Yet it changes the production for him to be a middle-aged man.

Mason, especially, tries to be current, slipping in jokes about booster shots and a cutting line about Tyre Nichols. He woos Jewels not just by reciting “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” but also by bragging about his Black Lives Matter chants. He does a Michael Jackson impression, too, and sings a bit of “Grease.”

The production’s hip-hop aesthetic of sampling flaunts its freedom and wit with a range of allusions. It’s typical of Rennie Harris’ resistance to stereotypes to have the B-boys get on the floor to prog rock by Yes. Yet despite the updates, the center of the show’s range remains Gen X. The Mercutio character (the appealing Joel Martinez) gets made fun of for liking MC Hammer.

Partly for that reason, what felt fresh and innovative in 2000 now feels a little nostalgic. It has a whiff of getting the old band together, of pulling the yearbook off the shelf. Every fair from fair sometime declines.

Another reason the show feels dated, though, is Harris’ development. “Rome & Jewels” was a breakthrough but so was the never-revived “Facing Mekka,” from 2003. After that, he seemed to be stuck for a long time — until the 2010s, when he started working more for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

In the final image of “Rome & Jewels,” the characters are all dead, and the dancers are on their backs, their limbs floating upward. A very similar image appears in “Lazarus,” the more mature work that Harris made for the Ailey company in 2018. It’s chilling in “Rome & Jewels” and more chilling in “Lazarus.” Between the two, Harris grew as an artist. And this revival of his breakthrough work helps show how.

‘Rome & Jewels’

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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