Learning Curve 

Four years in the making, a hip-hop musical surfaces at the University of Richmond.

click to enlarge James Grice, in red, leads the cast of the gritty new hip-hop musical, “Remnants,” which runs this weekend at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts.

Ash Daniel

James Grice, in red, leads the cast of the gritty new hip-hop musical, “Remnants,” which runs this weekend at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts.

It's a street that could be part of any major city.

Three young men in sneakers and hoodies quietly play wall ball. Graffiti letters loom above on the cracked brick wall. One of the men begins to softly sing.

A small girl runs up with the spastic energy of a Pomeranian.

"Oh, oh, oh, fuck!" she exclaims. "You muthafuckas are in the muthafuckin papers!"

They all stop. A man in a yellow button-up shirt and loose-fitting jeans stands up.

"Wait," José Joaquín Garcia tells the actors gathered at the University of Richmond's Alice Jepson Theatre. "Let's take the entrance again, folks."

This rehearsal of hip-hop musical "Remnants" is two weeks from opening night. The show follows three college-bound Hispanic teenagers after they witness a brutal murder. Together they deal with feelings of violence and revenge they've eschewed their entire lives until now. "Remnants" will see its first full staging Thursday.

Developed with the support of UR, the musical has been an on-and-off work in progress for four years, but the relationships that spawned it go back much further. Show authors Garcia and Patricia Herrera, now a theater professor at UR, began working together at New York's Henry Street Settlement in 1997. Realizing that they had similar ideas about theater and outreach into the Hispanic community, they formed Rubí Theater Company.

Through Rubí they appeared on the Dan Zanes and Friends album "Catch That Train," which won a Grammy for best musical album for children and provided the beat boxing and rapping for Zanes' cover of "What a Wonderful World" featuring Lou Reed as vocalist.

Garcia says "Remnants" came about because he wanted to explore issues of violence and incarceration with his teenage son — to see "just how fragile the situation is, and how it can be undone so quickly."

"This piece is about youth of color deciding not to engage in violence," Herrera says. "With so much news about youth of color being victims of violence or not being able to succeed, this piece shows the opposite."

To bring the piece to life, Garcia and Herrera brought some friends. Co-writing the music with Garcia is Jesse Myerson, who also serves as the show's musical director. Myerson met Garcia at a summer camp when Myerson was just 11 years old, and Garcia has served as a mentor since. The show's score draws from spirituals, jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

"Basically, the music that has come out of living and reliving the remnants of slavery," Myerson says. "The main theme of the show is how in impoverished urban areas populated by people of color, we're still dealing with the remnants of slavery."

For the 16-member cast of undergrads, learning the music and choreography proved a bit of a learning curve, especially for those unfamiliar with hip-hop.

"They're being challenged," Myerson says. "A lot of the cast is more used to traditional musicals. [In the show] they're popping and locking more than soft shoe. They're rapping more than they're crooning."

To ensure fidelity to the show's hip-hop roots, Garcia and Herrera brought Jorge "Popmaster Fabel" Pabon in from New York to help with choreography and graffiti, and serve as an adviser on hip-hop culture.

"When we come together we sort of form Voltron," Pabon says of the production staff. "I've named us the Sledgehammer Crew."

Pabon's bona fides include being a member of Afrika Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation, vice president of b-boy group Rock Steady Crew and co-writing the first off-Broadway hip-hop musical, "Jam on the Groove."

"It's a piece that speaks of identity and what we do and what we are," Pabon says of "Remnants." "It speaks of the brilliance of urban culture. Quite often they're marginalized and considered not that bright."

"This piece is a testament not only to the individuals involved, but the power of the movement known as hip-hop, and how we are able to adapt." S

"Remnants" runs Nov. 20-23 at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts, 28 Westhampton Way. Visit modlin.richmond.edu or call 289-8980.

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