The action at Design District club Bardot on Saturday night will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time on the Miami music scene: a party for an up-and-coming local rap duo, with a performance by the artists at this popular local music venue.
But you won’t find this group’s music on iTunes or see them at another club. The party, the show and the rappers themselves are fictional, created for a theater piece, Hip Hop Won’t Save You, staged by an innovative Miami ensemble that mixes audiences and performers in real-life venues.
“We’re re-imagining the way we experience theater,” says Stephen Kaiser, co-artistic director of The Project [theatre]. “The show starts the minute the audience gets out of their cars. When you’re in the world of the show, it has a way of waking audiences up and tuning them in.”
The audience might find actors performing a scene next to them at Bardot’s bar. Previous shows by The Project include Urban Apparel, which satirized trendy clothing chains such as Urban Outfitters and took place in a downtown storefront where the audience could buy real clothing by local designers. Extended Stay, about a reality show at a South Beach hotel, was staged in the lobby of the real Riviera Hotel.
“We want the audience to feel like they’re part of our world,” says Gladys Ramirez, the group’s other artistic director and co-creator of Hip Hop with Kaiser.
Hip Hop Won’t Save You tells the story of two popular local performers, longtime friends Rickie King, who is white, and Qui Fitzroy, who is black. When they start to become successful, King (played by Kaiser) succumbs to pressure to take on a stereotypical thuggish image, alienating his partner (played by Marquise Rogers) and the community that fostered him.
“He’s willing to do this to himself and the people around him to make it big,” says Ramirez, 29. “He wants to toughen his image, because that’s what people want to see – more guns, more violence – and he’s willing to take on that persona.”
The story raises issues of racism and racial stereotypes in pop music and culture, as well as who defines what it means to be black, and how commercial pressure can transform artists.
“The story of these bi-racial rappers gave us a platform to delve into racial issues and cultural appropriation,” says Kaiser, 30. “They both grew up in Little Haiti being part of the community. Fame creeps in and … [King] loses sight of all the things that brought him to love this in the first place. Instead, he starts going out of his way to appropriate the culture in an offensive way, playing up stereotypes of what people think they should see.”
Kaiser and Ramirez incorporate other elements of the local scene. Two real Miami rap artists, Matt the F**king Rapper and The Real Paul Morris, open for the fictional duo. Kalyn Chapman James, who hosts the WPBT cultural magazine show Art Loft, narrates a fictional Behind the Music-style film that screens during the Bardot show. Famed Miami hip hop dancer/choreographer and actor Rudi Goblen, who choreographed Hip Hop Won’t Save You and composed the musical tracks for its fictional rappers, also performs as himself.
Hip Hop Won’t Save You was largely inspired by Kaiser and Ramirez’s lives and surroundings. Kaiser, a lanky, towering, bespectacled actor, loved to freestyle rap in high school at New World School of the Arts.
“I stuck out like a sore thumb, this 6’5” nerdy white guy joins in the circle and gets down,” he says. “It took people a second to say this is OK.”
Both of the Project’s artistic directors are fans of hip hop music. They live several blocks west of the Design District, close to Little Haiti, and the gentrifying neighborhoods of Wynwood and Midtown Miami. A friendship with the sound engineer at Bardot, where they had often gone to concerts, led to the venue — an early outpost in the area’s trendy transformation — offering to host the pair’s show.
“We want to tell the story of Miami for the next generation,” says Ramirez. “Stories of gentrification, stories of our neighborhood where we live.”