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Hip-Hop Culture and the Growing Threat of Police Violence
Four days after this Christmas I found myself in the Cal Poly Pomona theater, waiting for the play Dreamscape to begin. Three days after Christmas in 1998, nineteen-year-old Tyesha Miller was shot to death by four police officers in Riverside, California. Dreamscape tells that story.
It starts with Otis Redding singing “White Christmas.” The pain and beauty in Redding’s voice and his regal, adult bearing set the tone for the seriousness of what’s to come. The stage set is just two folding chairs, back to back. In the front chair sits Rhaechyl Walker as Tyesha Miller. In the back chair sits John Merchant (aka Moufaahza), who plays one of the four cops, the 911 dispatcher, and the coroner.
The play is more than a recreation of that violent night. “What I wanted to explore is what goes through the mind of a nineteen-year-old black girl while she’s being shot to death by the police,” writer/director Rickerby Hinds told me. To that end, each of the twelve shots which riddled Miller’s body is described by the coroner in clinical detail. After each, Rhaechyl Walker takes over the stage, using dance and poetry and her sheer vibrancy to tell stories about Tyesha Miller’s life. She talks about her hair (don’t touch it!), her breasts, her tattoos, and how bad the bread is in barbecue restaurants.
Because the writing is so good (and often very funny) the audience gets pulled away from the death and blood of the story. But, inevitably, Walker sits back down in that chair and here comes another bullet, its path through her body mapped out with excruciating precision. The effect is emotionally shattering as we see Tyesha Miller as not simply another in a long line of victims but as a fully realized and unique person—sexy, upbeat, funny, silly, and smart. That is who we lost that night.
Moufaahza is not just a fine actor but also the Jimi Hendrix of beatboxers. He has incredible chops and is capable of mimicking anything, but above all he’s able to put together colors and feelings to clear the way for his thoughts and emotions to pour out. In Dreamscape, he uses his mouth to scratch like a DJ while also creating an orchestra of instruments both well-known and never previously imagined. Moufaahza does this while also incorporating the words of several characters and much of the action that took place on that night in 1998. His virtuosity is matched by how well his gifts serve the needs of the play.
In 1989, Hinds, a professor in the theater department at the University of California Riverside, wrote the first play based on hip-hop. He is one of the leading lights in the burgeoning hip-hop theater movement and when I asked him if he felt that having plays known as “hip-hop theater” marginalized them, he acknowledged that it does happen but that “It also opens up the theater to new audiences. Like my 19-year-old son and his friends.”
I don’t think there were many regular theatergoers in the house on the night I saw Dreamscape. Afterward, there was a spirited discussion of the play and the issues it raises. One woman stood up and said: “My son was killed six months ago by the police. What can we do?”
In response, Hinds acknowledged that Dreamscape provides no answers. But in dramatizing the issue with such artistry, the play brings people together. That’s where answers can begin.
Lee Ballinger, CounterPunch’s music columnist, is co-editor of Rock and Rap Confidential author of the forthcoming book Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing, interviewed Honkala for CounterPunch. RRRC is now available for free by emailing Ballinger at: firstname.lastname@example.org.