H3 ILLMATIC: Hip-Hop Theater

Playwright and founder of Changing Perceptions Theater Shaun Neblett wants to change the theater game through Hip-Hop. With his newest play, “Homage 3: Illmatic”, he just might.

Interview: Aimstar
Images: Courtesy of Shaun Neblett

Shaun Neblett’s new play Homage 3: Illmatic has seen many iterations. A process of writing and rewriting, casting and recasting for years, until finding the right tone and fit, finally Illmatic, the third installment in Neblett’s 7 Homages for 7 MCs Play Cycle™, has found its grounding, marking a strong beginning for Shaun Neblett aka MC SNEB in the world of theater. The story follows a young man as he faces an inner battle of whether to pursue his creative inklings, or rise to the occasion in his default career as educator, while navigating the fluctuating rhythms of his relationship, to his over-achieving, straight-laced girlfriend and his as-hard-as-they-come, backstabbing, street-wise roommate/best friend. What’s most interesting about the play and as its title suggests, is that the play is completely based on and acts as a tribute to Nas’ Illmatic album. The rappers’ bars come alive on stage through Homage 3, which deliberately shows how intellectually well-versed Nas truly is, and much bigger than that, how much Hip-Hop has to offer, culturally, outside of the radio, clubs and the street.

Shaun Neblett shares his thoughts…

I’ve heard that you want to bring Hip-Hop to the theater. It seems Hip-Hop is at least interested right now (Jay-Z and Will Smith producing Fela; Sarah Jones has been doing this through her plays; Mos Def in Top Dog Underdog; Alicia Keys doing the music for another)… Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

I wish more Hip-Hop entities would make a union with the theater, because they could bring new life into theater. And by new life I mean new audiences. When people see that Jay-Z is producing a play, they come. They might have no idea that the play he’s producing is about an African Liberator, until they get into the theater, but Jay-Z’ name gets them to buy a ticket and get a seat. Us theater folk—actors, directors, producers—have to work real hard to get people of color, under 40, into the theater because the American theater has often been for the rich and not told stories that represent us. People we vibe with come out to a play when they hear Mos Def is acting in it. And the theater could pay off for Hip-Hop entities too. After seeing the Illmatic play, so many people said they were going to go and pick up the Illmatic album and listen to it again, or listen to it for the first time. When I hear that Alicia Keys is producing a play, I start thinking of her as a more holistic artist and business woman, rather than only thinking of her as a rockstar.

Can you talk to me about your series of plays, the rappers you chose and why, and what you hope viewers—Hip-Hop heads or not—get from them?

I’m hoping to write plays that people in Hip-Hop culture see themselves in. Not only thugs and criminals listen to Hip-Hop. A lot of people think if you bring Hip-Hop culture into the theater, you’re doing a thug-angel story. But the President’s right hand man Reggie Love listens to Hip-Hop. Business owners, young people, principals of schools listen to Hip-Hop…. So I want to write plays that my friends who are out here, engaged in living can come watch and be honored by. I want to create plays that my people who dropped out of college, but are still succeeding are inspired by…. That might be my homage to Kanye. I don’t really want to entertain as much as I want people to walk out of the theater inspired and charged just like after listening to a Nas track. When I want people to walk out the theater charged and ready to unify and work with each other, I might write a homage to Wu-Tang, because that’s what they were able to do and the spirit they brought to the game.

Education seems to be a big theme in your play Illmatic. Is it fair to say that this is an important theme for you overall? Who are you educating?

Education was a major theme in Homage 3: Illmatic. It might not be a major theme in other stories, but the way that my company, Changing Perceptions Theater, is able to self-produce is through teaching theater in public schools. We contract with different schools in the Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn and teach OUR kids to write and perform their own original plays. We want them to learn different forms of expression and how to tell stories that can teach their classmates something.

These days there seem to be a lack of African-American presence on TV, what’s going on in the world of theater?

Theater has a lack of people in color that I’m familiar with. There’s a small handful of plays, with characters of color on the stage, but a lot of those stories are about criminals, slaves, being oppressed, getting raped…. I love A Raisin In the Sun, but I want to see new stories that show how the African-American psyche has developed over the years. It’s more moving to me to see characters like my friends, who wrestle with life but win… and I want to see characters who are embarking on changing the world and who are focused on higher purposes. We’ve spotted racism long ago and it’s not killing us. We have other things to talk about on the stage. Show me a story about a character of color that finds economic freedom and learns how to actuate his dreams…

Tell us about yourself. How did you become immersed in theater and playwriting…?

I started writing plays when I was in high school. I knew that I wanted to tell stories, but didn’t want to be a part of my school’s theater program, because there were no Black kids in it. The local YMCA had a playwriting course for teens and I was the only person that signed up and ended up being mentored by a playwright from Ghana, named Kabu Okai Davies. A play I wrote during that time won a national competition that garnered me an Off-Broadway production at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. I went to NYU [New York University] and this time was in a theater environment that was predominantly White, but when I got out of NYU was when I started learning more about writing plays and the theater. When I started teaching theater in Harlem and writing plays for my students in school to perform is how I got better at my craft. Now I’m into writing plays and producing them, so people see value in themselves and each other. My plays now are for people to appreciate the theater and explore deeper levels in Hip-Hop culture.

What was the first play you ever wrote? How old were you? What was it about? How long did it take, etc…

The first play I ever wrote about was called Rabstus and Olivia. Don’t even ask me how I named this dude Rabstus… I think I just wanted to be different….But it was a QUITE dramatic story about these two kids in college who loved each other and I think the girl’s parents were against them dating or something. The best part about that, was that my mentor arranged a reading of the play in a library, and I heard it out loud and people told me why they liked it. It was a good feeling and the next play I wrote after that one won a statewide competition. The third play I wrote, after that one, won a national competition. Ten years later Homage 3: Illmatic was the first play I wrote with a purpose in mind….Your whole artistry changes when you know why you’re writing or creating something.

What’s your favorite play of all time? And why?

My favorite play of all time (Shakespeare and August Wilson included) right now is Homage 3: Illmatic because it was a real different time for people of color in the theater. This wasn’t about analyzing a script in class… the Illmatic play became a whole experience of writing a script, rewriting a script, getting some actors who understand you and producing it…. And we had high school kids, college kids, adults, people in their twenties and thirties, Michael Eric Dyson….All say they saw themselves or someone they know in the play so Homage 3: Illmatic is tops for me right now, but as I’m working on Homage 2: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, I sense I might have a new favorite play soon…

What does the future of theater look for you personally, and also in the world at large? Is it bright?

The future looks bright for theater, if theater artists don’t get trapped in the same ol’ system of doing theater. If artists of color stay only talking about being oppressed, and White theater artists never support plays by people of color or engage in conversations with artists of color, then the theater will die out. It’s up to artists to learn the business aspect of theater, create their own shows and not wait to be acknowledged or included. Too much is at stake to sit around and waste time waiting for someone else’s approval.

Click HERE for more information on Homage 3: Illmatic and Shaun Neblett.

Images courtesy of Shaun Neblett.

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