I’m no good at winning arguments – even with myself. I became a playwright to argue with you and the other people in my head. In my first hip-hop play, No Lie, I play seven people arguing on a city bus about how to diagnose and treat white people disease (aka racism). My main hip-hop theatre inspirations (1996-97) are the rapped skits and political lyrics in my De La Soul and Ice Cube albums.
My search for mentors from my own culture (Greek-Slovak-English-Irish-Scottish) leads me to an OG of verse theatre. Shakespeare: The Remix is me and Gihieh Lee’s collaboration with the ghost of William Shakespeare, whose mid-death crisis pits him against a hip-hop-loving high school girl. I'm curious about the ways Shakespeare's characters, and the characters I grew up with, spar with language, and how comedy can turn to tragedy when words aren't enough.
Forget 400-year-old ghosts. My students’ classmates are being shot on our New Haven streets (or in Afghanistan and Iraq) – just like my high school classmates a decade before. So Ian Williams and I write a show to share what my generation learned about preemptive strikes and retaliation, in the hopes that my students won’t have to learn it firsthand. Kingdom is a hip-hop/rock musical following the rise of a war-mongering gang leader – or is that our nation’s commander-in-chief?
I return from working in Mexico City to learn New Haven is changing. Composer Byron Au Yong proposes we write a show based on the true story of an undocumented Chinese food deliveryman trapped for 81 hours in an elevator. Troubled by the life-and-death divergences between Guang’s story and my own easy hustle as an undocumented worker in Mexico, we follow Guang’s increasingly fantastic attempts to escape a 4’ by 6’ by 8’ metal box in Stuck Elevator.
Byron and I are writing a trilogy. The Ones – a choral hip-hop theatre forum about coming of age in an age of guns – begins as the oratorio (Be)longing at Virginia Tech. We wonder about the distance between ourselves, the shooters and the victims at Virginia Tech and in New Haven. We write local choirs and audiences into the show: storytelling, creating their own art, meditating and mobilizing. We survive this show by bringing community into it, by blurring lines between Us and Them.
Stressed out by the separation of self we find between our artistic and community work, Byron and I begin our third show Activist Songbook, a cycle of 53 songs and raps to counteract hate and energize movements. Prompted by the cross-cultural, intergenerational Asian American activism responding to the racially-motivated murder of Vincent Chin, we interview Asian American organizers to ask what songs their movements need, then create these songs from their stories.
If I’m gonna free myself from the sickness of white supremacy, I need my body. I need joy. I need wild creativity melting sanitized white walls. The young people at the children’s hospital where I work do this. So I collaborate with composers Rebecca Hart, Yako 440 and Jacinth Greywoode, and breaking pioneers Kwikstep and Rokafella, to create How to Break – a hip-hop musical about hospitalized teenagers wrestling with their caregivers over what it means to be “ill.”
Collaborating with Gihieh and Ian and Byron and Rebecca and Yako and Jacinth has stretched me into strange new musical and narrative worlds. What will happen when I collide all those worlds with the most foreign territory of all - my self, and my middle class white family? Smooth Criminal is a hip-hop play about a nerdy white boy desperate to liberate his people… as soon as he can figure out who they are.
Antonio “King Tone” Fernandez is in prison when he learns about Kingdom, the musical I’d written loosely based on his time as Inca of the Latin Kings. Now we’re writing a play together about the prison power struggle between him, and me, and this country’s most infamously brutal police officer. Tell is based on a true story, with some liberties taken… and some liberties taken away.
The world is constantly rewriting itself. What Is Race, and How Did I Catch It is my ever-changing hip-hop poem cycle (like a bi-cycle but more fluid) about me, and you, and this country’s strange love affair with race.