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Electric Rap

Exciting and original 'Beatbox' is one of year's best shows

By David Templeton

'I seek a story! I seek the people's story!" announces a young street rapper turned writer named Malloy (Dan Wolf) in the opening moments of the electrifying "raparetta" Beatbox, currently burning up the stage at Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater. Created by the award-winning Oakland-based music and theater collective known as Felonious: onelovehiphop, Beatbox, which is literally a rap operetta, seeks to tell a story that will capture the truth about young urban Americans, dreaming and hoping while scratching out a life on the streets of the big city.

The truths that Malloy observes as he focuses on the lives of two step brothers, Mickey Finch (Tommy Shepherd) and Tet (Carlos Aguirre), and the circumstances that begin to pull them apart, are soaked in the beat and the heat of hip-hop culture: the sense of desperation held at bay; the onstage rap battles; the audacious fashion styles; the powerful rap rhymes built from equal parts of anger and hope; and the constant threat of violence.

If this makes Beatbox sound like a downer, I haven't described it properly. This is an exhilarating piece of theater. From beginning to end, it captivates and excites. Imagine a rap version of West Side Story, but without the sappy romance, and you'll get a clearer picture of what Felonious have wrought. Undeniably wrenching in places, this is also a very funny show. Finch and Tet, after working a bunch of bus passengers for spare change with their impromptu, percussive rap-act, conclude with the amusing admonition, "Let my microphone bless you / And don't let the cops arrest you."

With very few exceptions, the story is told entirely in rhyme, rhymes that seem to burst from the actors as naturally as Pavarotti pops out arias; in fact, there is a surprising sense of naturalism to this rap operetta that escapes many modern musicals. When Tet begins to rebel against his brother after Finch puts together a new Tet-less act with up-and-coming rapper Zac (Keith Pinto), Finch raps, "Hey, little brother, I gotta make this point / You gotta do more than sit around and smoke my joints."

It is a lot easier to believe that Tet, Finch, Malloy and Zac would speak in rhymes and compete in spontaneous dance battles than to buy it when the Artful Dodger starts singing and all of London joins in. There is an urgent believability to this hybrid art form that makes me want to see a lot more of it, because it fuses reality and art so well, which is, after all, the goal of rap to begin with.

From the spare, sleek, storytelling (the dynamic script is written by Shepherd and Wolf) and the inventive, graffiti-and-skyscraper set by local graffiti artist Ricky Watts to the spot-on performances by the tight five-person cast to the onstage soundtrack spun by DJ Raw B to the dazzling hip-hop choreography brought to life by the talented Felonious troupe, this is easily one of 2005's best and most exciting theatrical experiences. With a running time of about 75 minutes and no intermission, this speeding subway train of a show says what it needs to say and calls it quits, something a lot of modern playwrights haven't figured out how to do.

The only fault I found on opening night, and it is a small fault at that, was that some of Wolf and Shepherd's mesmerizing lines and lyrics were occasionally delivered too softly to hear.

Beatbox will certainly appeal to the under-30 crowd who grew up with rap and hip-hop, but I encourage even those who think they dislike rap to give this energetic, moving, astoundingly creative show a chance. North Bay theater will only thrive if companies continue to take a chance on daring new material, and they can only afford to take such chances if the regular theater audience shows its support by showing up.

Rap and hip-hop aside, this is a story that deserves to be heard. As Malloy remarks toward the moving climax of the play, "I want to prove that this is more than just Finch and Tet's story." Beatbox, like Hair and Rent, is the story of time and of a generation. And like those now-legendary shows, this one has the power to change the way we see the world.

Believe it or not, that's what rap, and art, are supposed to do.


'Beatbox: A Raparetta' performs weekends through Nov. 12. Nov. 45 and 1012 at 8pm; Nov. 6 at 7pm. Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. $20$22. 707.763.8920.

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From the November 2-8, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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