Hip-hop tragedy splits Playhouse audience

The La Jolla Playhouse included "The Seven" as part of its 2006-2007 season to draw a more diverse and younger crowd.

Before a recent presentation of the play, Will Power, who adapted "The Seven" from Aeschylus' "Seven Against Thebes," faced the crowd and explained his vision for retelling the historical drama with a hip-hop flavor. Most of the seasoned theater veterans seemed open to a new experience.

A DJ (Chinasa Ogbuagu) opens the show at her turntable by playing a record that has a deep voice poetically recounting Greek tragedy tidbits. "He sounds like Freddy Krueger if he went to Harvard or somethin'," she says.

Immediately Edwin Lee Gibson appears on an upper walk; he's playing Oedipus, the King of Thebes who is under a family curse. Pontificating like an evangelical preacher he reveals he hates his two sons, Eteocles (Benton Greene) and Polynices (Jamyl Dobson), and they hate him. With an ostentatious style and using the "n" word several times, Oedipus divulges the curse is now on them, and that he wants his sons to kill each other.

Meanwhile the DJ spins and scratches her record in what is known as sampling, taking a bit of a contemporary song and mixing it with other sounds and styles.

The cast of "The Seven," most of whom performed in the play at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2006, are terrific in their musical numbers and dance choreography. The gist of the story is that Eteocles and Polynices decide to remain in harmony and foil their father's plan. They agree that each will rule as King of Thebes for one year. While Eteocles takes the throne first, Polynices happily retires to the forest with his true love, Tydeus (Flaco Navaja).

Near the end of the first year, word gets out that Eteocles, channeled by his father, no longer wants to give up his reign. At first Polynices expresses he would rather stay in the forest, but his cronies assure him Thebes will be destroyed unless he challenges his brother and takes his rightful place as king. Polynices assembles his band of seven brothers and sisters, and they plot to storm Thebes.

There were definitely two different audiences in attendance. As the play's dialogue became overfilled with profanity, talk about venereal disease, and even blasphemy and as the violence quotient was raised, the younger audience members cheered, clapped and chanted vocal praise. Theater decorum of respecting the audience members next to you by allowing them to hear the performance was thrown out the window.

Many older audience members sat in silence, some never clapping. Every profane word seemed to hit some of them like a dart, others sat rigidly with blank looks.

The vulgar dialogue in "The Seven" became the focus of the play, diluting the story, the music, Tydeus' intriguing song "Don't Do Me Wrong," the humor, and the swell work by the energetic and talented cast.

The most chilling moment came when one of the characters simulates a shooting. A video clip of bullet holes and blood dripping down each one filled the wall. Young audience members broke into ravenous applause. It was creepy.

In a world filled with violence, it is hard to understand why Powers took this dark route to tell his story. There is stimulating hip-hop out there that doesn't need profanity. This music doesn't need artists constantly grabbing their crotches. Had he taken the higher road, maybe the two different audiences would have met on even ground. Older audience members might have embraced a different way of telling a story, and the younger ones might have learned something about the real Greek tragedy.

"The Seven" stages at the La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre, now through March 16. For tickets call (858) 550-1010 or visit www.lajollaplayhouse.com.

   
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