*TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT*
Damn. This essay was originally going to be about how the fusion of hip-hop and the current form of musical theater might be so antithetical to each other that it makes revolutionary art impossible, and that rap is used by non-black artists as a spoonful of sugar to make drier and even retrograde material go down easier among unsuspecting audiences. Turns out we can’t do that, because the Q Brothers’ Ms. Estrada is not a suitable venue to discuss even the most basic outline of either of those concepts. I was going to go deep on Hamilton, but this fly-by-night operation shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath. A more apt comparison would be Spamilton; this feels like a parody musical, grasping at headlines and buzzwords faster than it can misuse them.
Full disclosure, I’ve written a rap musical, (you can find the script here, if you’re interested) and I’m painfully aware of the balancing act that comes from trying to inhabit the microscopic middle circle of the Venn diagram containing hip-hop heads and musical theater geeks. Fuller disclosure, I’ve written an ancient Greek rap musical, which is like adding spinning plates to the whole routine, but Ms. Estrada isn’t even trying. Based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the Flea’s latest production is a lazy, hackneyed, offensive cash-in on the #MeToo movement that doesn’t even have the courage to stand for much of anything.
If you don’t know the original play, which, fullest disclosure, I studied extensively in college, (This one was a hat trick of seeing things I love done wrong) don’t worry, the show abandons any pretense of being an adaptation about halfway through in favor of campy hijinks more befitting of an 80s comedy flick than any era of musical. This incredibly loose re-telling stars Elizabeth Estrada (played, inexplicably, by white actor Malena Pennycook) as a gender studies student at Acropolis University. It’s stated that the show is set in modern Greece, but I’m 90% sure they only said that so they could do a cheap riff about Greece’s failing economy. The college is quintessentially American, and it would have to be, because this play aims its sights squarely at the national conversation about college sexual assault. Liz organizes a social-media based sex strike to imperil the ‘Greek Games’, an inter-fraternity competition sponsored by local business magnate Harry Stefani (pronounced like Aristophanes).
Sometime around the punch line to that joke, I began to wonder just who the hell the Q Brothers were and why they had done this to me. After a little research, I discovered that they’ve made a name for themselves adapting Shakespeare into hip-hop musicals over the past 20 years (A hobby shared by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon). I watched this brief interview with them, and besides the Q Brothers seemingly genuine belief that Shakespeare himself would have loved their adaptation, I noticed two things. 1) They begin the interview talking about how they presented this material to children. They said the kids loved it, which I instantly believe, because (2 the Q Brothers are cartoonishly bad rappers.
I realize that they made the first one of these things only two years after Illmatic came out, but there is no reason that they should still be rapping like the Sugarhill Gang in 2018. Before the curtain raised, it truly did not occur to me that the rap wouldn’t be at least passable. The rhymes are so weak, relying on forced slant rhymes and crossing the bar line because the writers couldn’t think of better endings to their thoughts. Multisyllabic and internal rhymes are few and far between, and it’s all on top of a dozen or so repetitive beats, all at nearly the same tempo. In the Heights premiered on Broadway in 2008, and that had to have been a death sentence for these guys, because they had no chance of competing. To wit, none of these adaptations, after the first one, is even on founder GQ’s Wikipedia page.
This is to say nothing of the songs themselves, ‘Kick ‘Em in the Dick’ and ‘ReVaginalution’ are standouts. It’s hard to find where songs begin and end in Ms. Estrada, though, as the entire thing is rapped through. I want to compare it to Hamilton, but it isn’t possible. It’s not even as musically tight as Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly’s lengthy and oft-parodied hip-hopera. It clumsily uses the space between raps to have characters speak plot details in blank verse, surely a holdover from their Shakespeare days. A warning before the show cautions that things move fast, but it covers so little ground. I’ve rarely seen a work say so little with so many words.
Where the show does go, it stumbles to uncertainly. It suffers from a lack of real characters. Liz Estrada has friends with one character trait a piece (ditz, hippie, offensive stereotype of a black woman), a love interest who she shares less than ten on-stage minutes with, and three tiers of antagonist: frat boys, the Dean of the college, and Stefani. There are two separate songs dedicated to the boys preparing for the Greek games, and additionally a pair of news anchors who serve exclusively as exposition machines.
Each new character does, however, peel back a new horrifying layer from the collective psyche of this group of creators. Marina, the only named Asian character is paired with the hipster character, seemingly commenting, without saying anything, on the proclivity of a certain kind of millennial man. Limpita, the only major black woman character (in a rap musical!) is paired with Herman, the only major black male one, and her blackness is really her only defining trait. She even says the play’s one n-word, pretty randomly. The bros themselves are boorish sexists, but that’s the point. It’s telling, though, how much time we spend with them, despite them having almost no effect on the plot.
I hate to comment on failed feminisms two weeks in a row, but this cannot go unremarked upon. This show is militant in its white feminism. Women of color are constantly mocked and backgrounded, only to be trotted out when the creators want to pretend that they have some connection to or even knowledge of intersectionality. I want to chalk it up to ignorance, but I can’t. The pre-show announcement that warns the audience about speed also hangs a lampshade on the fact that straight men wrote the play, and that if you’re offended, it’s your own problem. One of the only things I enjoyed is that Ms. Estrada made an honest attempt to voice a disagreement about methodology between basic, but mostly accurate, characterizations of second and third wave feminism. Unfortunately, it’s used as a cudgel to beat back anyone who would criticize any of the show’s many glaring flaws in the same arena.
The worst of this is tied up with the villains of the piece, Dean Jaffe and Harry Steffani. In the play, Liz and the Dean come to a stalemate over the sex strike. Liz agrees to stop the strike if the Dean disguises himself as a woman for a single day and still wants to shut them down. The Dean does this, and, on his only day of cross-dressing, is raped, onstage, by Harry Steffani. Then, later, at the climax of the show, it is revealed that the rape was caught on camera. The footage is aired on live television, and characters watching crack jokes about it.
I don’t even know where to begin. Ms. Estrada is one of those stories where the antagonist’s crime is played back in front of the police in order to confirm their guilt, stop their plan, and humiliate them publicly. What the creators don’t seem to get is that there’s a reason those stories don’t usually make the crime rape. How the moment ends up reading is that during playback, not only does the victim relive their trauma, but so does every character present, including—in this case—another victim of sexual assault.
I believe that artists should be allowed to use rape in stories. They had better have a damn good reason, but there are circumstances where it can be appropriate to portray. I can even understand, in some cases, depicting it (with trigger warnings) on film or on stage, but there are a lot of considerations. One common mistake is to make the rapist a sexual deviant to further otherize him. The downside of this, as you might imagine, is kink shaming, but Ms. Estrada takes it a step further. I’ve never seen a rape scene using comedy strategies to simultaneously otherize a rapist and get a laugh.
We actually get more details of the rape upon playback, which I have also never seen before. The rape in real time is abstracted to a sexist come-on and an awkward touch. But apparently, the audience needs to know that the assault involved a plant and a muffin because characters watching the video (broadcast sight unseen on the local news) ask what he’s doing with them. For laughs.
I was speechless. These guys were not the right choice for this story; they are astoundingly ill-equipped. They have no idea how to write raps. They have no idea how to write a comedy. And they have absolutely no idea how to write write women or any of the issues that can (and do) face them. If there’s one good thing I can say about Ms. Estrada, it’s that it has ensured that Spike Lee’s Chiraq will no longer go down as the worst adaptation of Lysistrata in history. Avoid this play and these writers at all costs.
[PS When I pulled the table read for Steve Bannon’s Coriolanus adaptation, I clicked through to a random part to get a taste, and not five seconds after my click was Abe from Malcolm in the Middle, saying a Bannon-penned n-word. Stay classy, Steve.]
Image: The Flea Theater