“Rome and Jewels” by Rennie Harris. Photograph courtesy Penn Live Arts

Rome and Jewels Redux

Rennie Harris brings Shakespeare to the street in “Rome and Jewels” 

Performance
Rennie Harris Puremovement: “Rome and Jewels”
Place
The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, PA, December 9, 2022
Words
Merilyn Jackson

“Romeo and Juliet” was a favorite in high school lit-class, a real two-hanky play. My first experience of any version of the play on stage was with choreographer John Cranko’s version at the Academy of Music in 1969. I knew Prokofiev’s score, especially “Dance of the Knights,” where the Capulets and Montagues curtsy and circle one another. The sinister music trumpeted that they would soon be killing each other. Around the same time Franco Zefferelli’s dance-heavy film came out. Both Cranko’s dance and Zeferrelli’s film were full of pomp and ceremony, velvets, pearls, crimsons, swords, and sumptuous beyond words. So, I’ve always thought of “Romeo and Juliet” as dance.

Fast forward thirty some years to 2000 at the Wilma Theater where I would see my first version of “R&J” on stage. Yet again, as a dance theater work—Rennie Harris’s altogether jaw dropping “Rome and Jewels”—a grungy, smoke-filled, deafening, harrowing translation into the languages of BBoying, breaking and hip hop. Harris reprised the work at Penn Live Arts’ Annenberg Center this past weekend. It’s pacing, and Philly-centric text had my neck and shoulders tensed for the duration. Visual designs by Howard Goldberg and Ryder Palmere gave a real-time bird’s-eye view with projected overhead video of tornadic DJ-ing by DJ Razor Ramon and original cast member Evil Tracy The International Showoff.

In interviews, Harris says he derived his version of breaking from what he calls GQ, after the cha-cha, popular in Philly in the ‘60s. He says it influences all the movements he makes and there are some wonderful YouTube demos you can easily see how.  

In that video (made some years before the Russian invasion of Ukraine) he also demonstrates how the Russian Kazátskiĭ kicks shape his choreography. Kazátskiĭ means Cossack—known as fierce fighters who sought to free Christian slaves and loot valuables. Ukrainians call the dance move “hopak,” from the word “hopaty,” which means ‘to hop.’ How hip is that?

In Harris’s narrative, Rome is the homey who loves Jewels, who we never see, because for Harris, Rome’s quest is not for love, but for jewelry and money. The unseen Juliet/Jewels is as unattainable as the riches he says BBoys seek.

Though most reviewers tag Shakespeare as Harris’s inspiration, he says it was “West Side Story,” which he saw as a kid and wondered why there was no street dancing in it. Even so, the iteration of doomed love and gang fighting, it gave him the concept for this groundbreaking version that’s traveled the world to critical acclaim.

“Rome and Jewels” by Rennie Harris. Photograph courtesy Penn Live Arts

Harris was born in the ‘60’s North Philly of gangs, poverty, and fatherlessness. Mothers couldn’t receive welfare for their families if the father lived at home. Hence, a kind of government imposed break up of families. I know. I experienced it. I was born in North Philly too, just south of the divide, in Lankenau Hospital next to Girard College which Harris’s text briefly references. Girard College was both a haven for orphaned white boys (my brothers went there) and the dividing line between white and Black neighborhoods surrounding it. One of America’s most famous cases of what we now call institutionalized racism, (not to mention misogyny) was the lawsuit introduced by Raymond Pace Alexander in 1953. It finally desegrated the college in 1968 admitting fatherless Black boys. Girls were not admitted until 1984. By which point, hip hop became the dances of the streets, and, through choreographers like Harris, much more.

This bit of local history informs Harris’s mirror imaging of tales of feuding families, flipping the script from the opulence of Verona and the steamy streets of fifties Latino New York to the roiling underbelly of North Philly. The notion that a young man growing up in that era and neighborhood would roam from Bernstein and Robbins to Shakespeare defies probability. But to conceptualize it all in this hip hop or street dance forms, find great dancers and collaborators, and then bring it to proscenium stages implies genius.

Actor and dancer Rodney Mason, brought on the Shakespeare during an early rehearsal, altering and shouting Tybalt’s line: “Yo, Rome, the hate that I have for you can afford no better term than this: Thou art a villain—so what’s up?” Mason was well-read in Shakespeare. Harris cast him as Rome and Philip Cuttino as Ben V (Benvolio). From there, Harris, Ozzie Jones, d. Sabela Grimes (the original Ben V) and Raphael Xavier (the original Tybalt) and Mason took off with the texts, mixing quotes from “Romeo and Juliet” with neighborhood parlance transposing the basics of the drama into daring/complex solo and ensemble dance bits and scenes. 

At the world premiere, Harris took flak from critics for having only one female dancer in the original, Julie Urich, who remains in this cast. He’s addressed that by adding Emily Pietruszka, and his own daughter, Miyeko Urvashi Rennie Harris. All three bring a necessary feminine sass to the hypermasculinity of the work. True athletes, doing coffee-grinders, handstands and other body-wrenching steps, it’s easy to see why breakdancing will be introduced as a new sport in the Paris 2024 Olympics.

“Rome and Jewels” by Rennie Harris. Photograph courtesy Penn Live Arts

This cast are not mere gymnasts, but artists as well. They make the fight scenes seem realistically fierce with their complex footwork, popping and locking. Mason seems to adlib when the Grand Wizard (Ozzie Jones) tall in his work boots, calls him Shorty and suggests he doesn’t look good. “It’s that booster,” Mason quips, tossing in a contemporary moment that gets a laugh. Throughout, his dancing and acting have the quality of a prankster, unexpected skids, and still doing head spins. Riffing on The Bard, he sums up the play for our contemporary inner-city reality with “A pair of star-crossed homies take their life.” With abrupt chicanery he pulls his feet and legs together, bends at the waist and ripples his arms as bonelessly as Anna Pavlova.

Among dozens of other acclaimed choreographies, Harris has gone on to mount “Lazarus” on Alvin Ailey, “Awake” on Philadanco and “Facing Mekka” on his company, RHPM. Perhaps for touring purposes, this reprise of “Rome and Jewels” seemed shortened by about 20 minutes. Nonetheless, it’s impact remains explosive, enduring and completely engaging.