13 MICS & STYLE 4 FREE (UK) written and performed by Benji Reid. Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). April 27-30 at 8:30 pm, Q&A April 30 at 2 pm. Rating: NNNNN
Benji Reid, creator and performer of 13 Mics, is a poet and one hell of an entertainer. That's obvious even on a staticky line from Manchester, England, where he's talking in a crowded restaurant filled with people discussing Charles and Camilla.
"The show started after I read an article about how hiphop had died," he tells me, his voice taking on a singsong rhythm, punctuated by expressive laughs and sighs.
"Hiphop used to be something that could elevate people out of their misery by creating art from found objects like turntables. MTV changed all that. One of the first rules, 'Thou shalt not bite' - or take someone's style - no longer applies. Hiphop no longer carries any political weight. Look at 50 Cent. It's all about bling bling, naked women and getting shot."
Choreographing himself around 13 microphones, Reid plays eight characters who sound off on hiphop. They range from a young kid and a poet to an MC and a politician. Each has a distinctive musical language and movement - Reid made his name in the 90s as a breakdancer and body popper.
"I'm a physical actor. Body language gives you an emotional context," says Reid, who's also performing Style 4 Free, a freestyle show that displays his skillz with movement and metaphors.
"As I've got older I'm not as energetic as I used to be, but I'm more precise. I concentrate and cherry-pick what I want to do."
Of all his characters, he's most amused by a guy named Brother Jazz, an old-school blues musician who's cheeky and funny.
"Brother Jazz is like the omen in the show," says Reid. "He goes head to head with the MC rapper and tells him hiphop's moved away from the roots of the soul and become commercialized."
Doesn't Reid himself feel there's a contradiction between his street-level proclamations and the plush theatres he's performing them in?
"You got to mix and match," he laughs. "If I don't get to play the big theatres, like the Sydney Opera House, my art form doesn't elevate itself. Producers who are chasing that holy grail of young audiences won't see that they can relate to this stuff. It's gritty and relevant at the same time."
This year's World Stage festival proves that one isn't the loneliest number. Subtitled Flying Solo, it features more than 20 one-person productions from around the globe. For the first time ever, the whole fest takes place at a single locale - Harbourfront Centre. And you can’t beat the $25-or-less ticket price. Here’s NOW’s spotlight on some of the best of the fest.
The World Stage Flying Solo festival, a three-week international theatre, visual arts and literary fest presented by Harbourfront Centre at various venues on Queens Quay West. (See NOW's related listings sections for specific events.) Runs to May 1. Mainstage shows $25; Kafka And Son $15; International readings $8; some events free. 416-973-4000, www.harbourfrontcentre.com/worldstage.