The Reading Room Festival (Jan 25-28) features new work and conversations inspired by, in response to, or in dialogue with the plays of William Shakespeare. Leading up to the festival, we’re doing a Q&A series with the creators involved.
One of the highlights of The Reading Room Festival this year is Rap Monologues, a one-person show written and performed by Austin Dean Ashford that fuses hip hop history, humor, and a fresh perspective on the classics.
“I hope the audience walks away hearing things in hip hop verses they may not have noticed and have a new lens of how hip hop is actually classical text and validating playwrights through the music,” writes Ashford. Read more in the Q&A below, and join us for the performance on Thursday, January 25, 7pm.
FOLGER: What’s the story behind the creation of your performance and its early life? What was your process?
The story behind “Rap Monologues” was kind of a community-based exercise for my dissertation work during Covid. During Covid there was a social audio app called “clubhouse”; this app allowed people to listen and speak to huge or small rooms with people from around the world. There was a room I created called “rap monologues” where I invited people to act out their favorite hip hop verse as high stakes monologues. The rooms grew up to over 2,000 people weekly coming to compete for the weekly title. Eventually we stopped the game and people began to go outside, but I loved the activity and it began as an exercise I did with students to get them into verse-based storytelling.
The process of taking this game/exercise and morphing it into a play was beautiful because I wanted to find a way for me to keep exploring hip hop lyrics and compare them to Shakespeare and afrofuturism. The idea of using hip hop verses as monologues to beg the question “is hip hop black people’s Shakespeare”?
FOLGER: Were there any particular problems or knots in Shakespeare’s works that you wanted to interrogate? What are you hoping that audiences will take away from this performance?
I wanted to interrogate the idea of what is classical text. Ian Mc Kellen had a one-person show called “Acting Shakespeare,” and after I saw that play I wanted to make my own called “Acting hip hop” because I feel like hip hop is classical text in language that is for the people like Shakespeare was during its time.
I hope the audience walks away hearing things in hip hop verses they may not have noticed and have a new lens of how hip hop is actually classical text and validating playwrights through the music.
FOLGER: What is your favorite Shakespeare adaptation, and how did it make you think differently about Shakespeare’s works?
My favorite Shakespeare adaptation is the film “O” which is an adaptation of Othello. I also really like the Q brothers version of “Othello: The Remix.” By using hip hop theatre, Shakespeare adaption really caught my attention. It taught me that I can take from a story and use my own entry point to stay connected to the concept.
FOLGER: What are you hoping to learn from The Reading Room Festival?
I am hoping to learn the multidimensional conversation about hip hop vs Shakespeare. I am hoping to learn more about the main characters and how they grow during this story. I am interested in learning the audience/story relationship. I am also hoping to learn what works really well with the play as well.
FOLGER: Anything else that you’d like readers and audience members to know about you and/or your performance?
I am beyond honored and excited for this opportunity to be able to develop this play with Folger Theatre. This is my first time working with this organization but it has been a dream of mine for quite some time and I’m grateful for the organic and authentic way “Rap Monologues” came about and is finding a developmental home with prolific organizations like the Folger.
Rap Monologues Workshop with Austin Dean Ashford
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