Rome & Jewels written, directed and choreographed by Rennie Harris of Puremovement at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge), February 24-29, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Tuesday and Thursday 1 pm, Saturday 2 pm, Sunday 3 pm. $29-$75. 416-872-5555. Rating: NNNNN
As the streetwise Rome in Rome & Jewels, Rennie Harris's ghetto take on Romeo And Juliet, Rodney Mason may have the moves of a hustler, but this hiphop impresario ain't no gangsta. "When we started rehearsing, Rennie kept telling me, less love, more thug," Mason confides over the phone from Philadelphia, where he is enjoying a quick break before Rome & Jewels hits Toronto for a five-day run starting February 24.
Loosely based on Harris's experiences coming of age in the projects of South Philly, the production reinvents Shakespeare's tragedy as an urban parable in which the pursuit of Jewels, a never-seen character who symbolizes bling bling, awakens Rome to a bigger life. It's a full-out hiphop experience with three DJs who scratch and play the breaks while the Monster Qs, Rome's popping and locking crew, battle it out with the b-boy Caps.
Harris is the hiphop pioneer whose company, Puremovement, came up with Kurtis Blow, Run DMC and the Fat Boys in the early 80s. He originally conceived of Rome & Jewels without words. Mason, then the newest and most silent member of the troupe, convinced him otherwise.
"I'd just finished reading Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet screenplay," recalls Mason. "So when Rennie announced he was doing it, I saw his lips moving but didn't hear anything coming out. I just kept thinking of possibilities for dialogue."
Once the choreographer stopped talking, the dancer started. "'Yo, Rome! The hate I have for you can turn out no better term than this. Thou art the villain. So wuz up?'
"Rennie laughed for, like, three minutes," recalls the now 36-year-old hiphopper. "I think I shocked him."
To Mason, also from the projects, the mixture of Ebonics and Elizabethan verse came naturally. Reading Shakespeare's plays aloud in high school, he'd add extra urban nuances, cracking up the room.
"My English teachers just loved me," says Mason seriously. "The class would be laughing, but they'd be feeling it."
In his early teens he got into his older stepbrother's crew of hiphop dancers through a mixture of begging and working on his skills. By the time he was 15, Mason had developed a reputation as one of the best hiphoppers in South Philly. Strangers would challenge him to battles on street corners and in front of his house, and Mason would one-up his opponents by mimicking their moves.
Looking back, he laughs at his cockiness. "That's the only thing that saved my butt in high school - being Mister Funny Dance Man."
While Mason freely admits he uses humour to hide his insecurity, it helps him relate to Rome.
"I can understand wanting to say all these sonnets and corny things to a woman. For Rennie, the character is more about the dark side, but for me it's all about love."