Rennie Harris’ ‘Rome and Jewels’: Keeping hallowed works vital

Rennie Harris' 'Rome and Jewels'. Photo by Erin X. Smithers for FirstWorks.
Rennie Harris' 'Rome and Jewels'. Photo by Erin X. Smithers for FirstWorks.

Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Providence, RI.
November 18, 2023.

Kathleen Pletcher, the Executive Artistic Director of FirstWorks RI, introduced the work about to take the stage – Rennie HarrisRome and Jewels (2000). She explained how it’s an adaptation of true classics: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and its more modern iteration West Side Story. The work’s themes and truths remain incredibly relevant and impactful, she affirmed. 

Underscoring that impact on the here and now, she also noted how the performers had spent the day before in local schools — educating the next generation on some basics of form and process, those that helped bring the imminent work to life. The audience, clapping rapturously, seemed to understand the importance of that impact. 

Some might claim that the classics must be preserved as something sacred. Others might advocate for the kind of iterating and updating that keeps them speaking clearly into the modern day. Rome and Jewels demonstrates what the latter perspective can nurture: a work that dares to employ the bold stylings of unexpected artistic genres, to speak timeless truths in languages that modern audiences already speak. 

The first thing we in the audience saw was a city skyline (original visual design by Howard Goldcranz, visual design by Ryder Palmere), skyscrapers’ sharp angles juxtaposing the soft gradients of a watercolor sunset. We soon met some intriguing characters, their zippy quips beginning to build character, narrative, and a sense of the narrative’s stakes. There can certainly be some colorful characters in the “hood,” those quips important for keeping “cred” and expressing “beef.” These artists seem to deeply know the world of the street, and they invited us into it with this work. 

Speaking of that dialogue, the multi-modal nature of this work struck me quite early on; dialogue, movement and music all came together to build the world in which this story grew and lived. In that I felt a kinship with hip hop itself – with its separate, and equally fundamental, elements (dance, rap/emceeing, deejaying and graffiti). Evocative reds and shadows across the stage (original lighting design by Pamela Hobson, lighting design by Julie Ballard and Elyjah Kleinsmith), and separate color palettes for warring “crews” (“street” equivalents of the Montagues and Capulets) visually scaffolded that world. 

Rhythmic and breathy speech, for its part, engaged me just as thoughtfully-crafted hip hop can. I also chuckled a bit, highly entertained, to hear Shakespeare soliloquies – right from the pages of Romeo and Juliet – spoken in this hip hop idiom. Rather than cheapen those hallowed words, it brought me into them in a fresh, vibrant way. Dialogue ping-ponged back and forth between modern and classical speech. That mix was somehow cohesive and pleasing rather than discordant.  

Music, from (of course) hip hop to classic rock to more modern rock, felt just as vibrantly eclectic (sound design and musical direction from Darrin Ross). Movement reflected the wide stylistic spectrum of “hip hop dance” — slow, continuous to accented and lightning-quick; strikingly strong and athletic to spotlighting the sublest nuances of gesture and articulation; built by the community of the cypher (a circle of dancers) or the kinetic spirit of just one mover. 

The performers could ground deep in gymnastic breakdancing feats just as smoothly as they could move through more lifted pop/lock vocabulary. They excelled at all parts of that movement spectrum. That excellence did not have to generate something overly esoteric, scholarly or abstruse to the point of being inaccessible. A spirit of playful and spontaneous creativity pervaded it all — again, that which imbues larger hip hop culture. 

I also noticed, fairly early on in the work, how Harris chose to not physically represent “Jewels”: Juliet in Shakespeare’s tale and Maria in its 1950’s rendition. Rather, she was an off-stage presence. I pondered Harris’ intentions behind that choice (indeed, such obvious choices have intention behind them, for each and every artist); perhaps, in Harris’ vision, Jewels is more of an ideal of sweet, soft love, full of warmth and beauty. 

Later on in the work, a projection of a rose filled the backdrop, opening and then closing its curvaceous petals. This image was perhaps a visual representation of that force of love, that idea of softness and nurturance, in this world of the street. In such ways Harris infused a postmodern sensibility — of mystery, abstract representation and interpretation in the eye of the beholder. 

At the same time, the work remained grounded in something very real, of the creative force of the moment over anything found in a textbook. Moreover, the artists brought the audience right into that creative moment. The smoke of dry ice ensured that all of our senses were engaged in the raw feeling of the story at hand. DJs, manipulating records not only with their hands but in one section with their teeth (just wow!), called us to clap and holler along. We had no choice but to be right there in the rhythm with them.   

Sadly, such creative force couldn’t stem tragedy born of violence. The killing of Rome’s close friend Merc (mirroring Shakespeare’s Mercutio) set off a chain of events leading to the deaths of both Rome and Jewels. Harris’ narrative trimmed away many of the plot points of Shakespeare’s classic to effectively get to the heart of the story. One might point to the closing words of a wise, older character for that narrative heart: violence only breeds more violence, and in that environment none of us are untouched. 

With current global conflicts being what they are, rooted in much older tribal animosity, I thought back to Pletcher’s opening words – how timely this timeless story remains. It becomes only the more so by the courage and intentional creativity of artists like Rennie Harris and his collaborators, leading to the sensitive ferocity of their Rome and Jewels

They can set an example for other creatives perhaps compelled by the classics, but cautious of removing a protective dust cover and throwing the “rules” to the wind. These stories don’t have to be so precious. Instead, if retellings are made with loving intentionality and awareness of the world as it currently is, they have so, so much more to give. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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