- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Hip-hop and American Sign Language prove an inspired pairing in “Hip Hop Anansi,” a pop-locking and rhyming variation on a Ghanian folk tale by Elsa Davis. Deaf and hearing actors collaborate on a G-rated, beat-barmy musical that celebrates the kind of music you can feel inside and out.

“Hip Hop Anansi” is a hip-hop show free of profanity and slurs against women to which you’d feel comfortable taking the whole family. The b-boys and fly girls in Imagination Stage’s production are youthful and fresh-faced — even the graffiti-splashed, chain-link set looks friendly. No BET-style, hootchy-kootchy moves or even a wisp of gangsta violence. These are the mean streets of “Sesame Street.”

Adapted from the story “Anansi and His Sons,” this hip-hop version features a trickster spider named Anansi (Fred Michael Beam), who wants to win the “golden fly pie” more than anything but must rely on the talents of his children to claim the prize. The tale teaches the principle of unity, that a group is stronger than the individual when talents are shared.

Anansi’s children include a graffiti artist named Spray (Paige Hernandez), a DJ (Peace Justice Universal DJ Eurok), a break dancer called Worm (Warren “Wawa” Snipe), an emcee (Keith S. Brown), and a battling b-boy (Linden Tailor).

When Anansi pretends to lose his powers, the youngsters come to his aid, helping him navigate the urban streets and even banding together to vanquish his yuckiest enemy, a giant cockroach.

Yet lessons about cooperation are not the centerpiece of this musical. Instead, the show is about hip-hop music — the insistent beat, the free-falling rhymes and exuberant creativity.

Miss Davis’ play is largely formless, and it might help if audience members are somewhat familiar with the folk tale beforehand. Parents not fond of the hip-hop musical genre may want to make use of the theater’s “quiet room.” By contrast, hip-hop fans will appreciate the scratching and mixmaster talents of DJ Eurok, who cringes at the very idea of using an IPod.

He samples the latest in hip-hop and rap as well as snippets of old-school offerings from the days when rappers such as Ice-T, Ice Cube and Run-DMC were in vogue. The dances — dynamically executed by a young cast and choreographed by Mr. Beam — are up-to-the minute and enthusiastic, incorporating freestyle, break dance, and pop-locking. Mr. Snipe, who exudes gangly grace as the supple Worm, even throws in a few Michael Jackson moonwalk moves for comic effect.

Director Patrick Crowley keeps the feet, fingers, and rhymes flying in a musical that combines the fluidity of sign language with the jumpy beats and percussive cadences of hip-hop. Mr. Tailor and Mr. Brown are standouts with the insouciant energy of their dance moves and poetic raps.

“Hip Hop Anansi” does away with the nasty side of rap music to accentuate the positive aspects, conveying the excitement of a culture that has a given a proud voice to young people for several generations.

***

WHAT: “Hip Hop Anansi” by Elsa Davis

WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda

WHEN: 3:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday and March 4. Sundays at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. (Sold out on March 26.) Morning performances also are scheduled for April 11, 12 and 13 at 10:30 a.m.

TICKETS: $10 to $15

PHONE: 301/280-1660

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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