Now more than 30 years old, Hip Hop has evolved from being a local art form found on the streets of New York’s West Bronx to an international creative inspiration that shapes a generation. Now influencing music, art, dance, and theatre, Hip Hop is branching out from its fundamental roots of club DJs and graffiti art to create a powerful presence on theatre stages. For artists like Kashi Johnson, associate professor of theatre, Hip Hop theatre provides opportunities to discover new voices.
Committed to nurturing new Hip Hop talent, Johnson is co-founder of RedSun Productions, a Lehigh Valley based theatrical production company dedicated to cultivating and showcasing original, cutting-edge Hip Hop theatre artists for the stage. She works with Touchstone Theater, a local community-focused professional theatre, to produce the regularly occurring HipHopCollective, an open-mic show that features regional talent and local acts.
Johnson, a trained actor and experienced director, is excited by the new role of producer. A native New Yorker, she is a self-described product of Hip Hop. “I grew up New York City in the early 80s, so I was in the room when Hip Hop was born and I fell in love. I discovered my passion for theatre years later. So imagine how excited I was to learn about the emerging genre of Hip Hop theatre. For the first time, there were stories being told by artists who looked like me, performing in regional and national venues that hadn’t traditionally supported this style of theatre. It spoke to me. I felt empowered.”
“With Touchstone, it was the perfect opportunity to develop an outlet for a lot of the work I already did. Becoming a producer seemed natural because I knew how to put a show together. What I had to learn was how to negotiate the demands of a performance space, artist needs and audience expectations.”
For artists like Kashi Johnson, associate professor of theatre, Hip Hop theatre provides opportunities to discover new voices.
Booking up to 10 shows per season, Johnson always tries to mix New York artists with acts by local performers in order to fit with Touchstone’s community philosophy. Some events have featured all New York and Philadelphia acts, while others have focused on Lehigh students and their work.
Johnson also works as a consultant to Hip Hop artists, many of them New York based, helping to develop their stage shows. Her professional experiences have dovetailed with her teaching, resulting in a highly popular course that examines Hip Hop theatre not only as entertainment, but asks students to create and perform their original work too. She says that whether she is working with professional performers or her students, the enjoyment comes with helping artists find their voice.
“Hip Hop has been around for some time now and there’s a lot to learn, but 2010 is almost here and students are creating their history in the culture - now. I encourage them to define what makes their Hip Hop generation different from mine, and what needs to be said that isn’t. Moreover, it’s an excellent way to introduce students to the joy, demands and rigors of the theatre.
“Hip Hop theatre is the ultimate form of self expression. Through creativity, courage and empowerment, all things are possible.”