Billy Shakes, in the House

Shakespeare to Hip Hop introduces middle and high schoolers to the classical canon

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Most people would balk at the idea of comparing William Shakespeare and Dr. Dre. But both men came from humble origins. They both grew up in bustling, violent cities. They both became experts in metered language and rhythmic performance. They both told stories of passionate heroes, corrupt authority figures, and tragic downfalls. And they both developed the creative language of an entire culture, inspiring generations of artists around the world.

These crossovers inform Shakespeare to Hip Hop, a touring educational program that visits schools across Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Created by Providence-based renaissance man Marlon Carey and renowned poet Regie Gibson, Shakespeare to Hip Hop explores the works of the Bard in the cant of urban freestyling.

“I always liked words,” says Carey. “I was a smart kid, always reading. My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher. I was raised with the power of the word. And I was drawn to the fact that my grandfather was a healer, an inspirer.”

Carey’s grandmother also founded a basic school in her native Jamaica, before the family moved to New York City and later Dorchester, Massachusetts. Carey gives credit to his teachers at Fenway High School – an early pilot school – for cultivating his interest in literature. He went on to study writing at St. Andrews College, has taught workshops for Grubb Street, has served as a radio DJ, has released original albums, and won a host of slam poetry awards.

Carey met Gibson at the Lizard Lounge, a Boston nightclub famous for its poetry events. Among slam artists, Gibson is a legend: He appeared on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam, has won international awards, and inspired the 1997 indie film Love Jones. (He also appears in the film). One of Gibson’s endorsements came from no less a personage than Kurt Vonnegut: “Regie, you sing and chant for all of us. Nobody gets left out.”

The two artists had considered a traveling show called From Homer to Hip Hop, but after a successful engagement at the Boston Public Library, where they were invited to riff on Shakespeare’s monologues to celebrate the playwright’s 450th birthday, they decided to focus on the man from Avon.

To date, Shakespeare to Hip Hop has performed in about 10 schools in Rhode Island. For each engagement, Gibson and Carey describe Shakespeare’s life and work, then perform a variety of musical sketches – a “rap battle” between Iago and Lady MacBeth, a Country-Western song based on the “Dark Lady” sonnets, and one soliloquy set to the melody of Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The pair conscripts two to four instrumentalists per show, and they rehearse “wherever we can.”

Most of their RI performances have taken place in private schools. But the response has been positive, and Carey hopes to take the show to lower-income communities. “They overwhelmingly think it’s wonderful,” Carey says. “We were worried, at one point, that the material would be over the heads of kids in fifth grade. But again, the musicality, the humor, some of the costumes – it’s great for people who familiar with the text, and people who are not familiar with the text. We can adjust the set. We’re able to engage on a number of different levels.”