In Romeo and Juliet, even before the title characters meet and fall into desperate love, Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, delivers a dark speech about the pitfalls of dreams. He tells Romeo a tale about Queen Mab, a fairy midwife who visits people in their sleep and brings them dreams suited to their individual desires: lovers dreams of love and lawyers dream of money-making cases. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, a wild, pun-filled yarn that begins with fairytale charm and devolves into a story about human folly, foreshadowing the tragedy that befalls so many of the characters, Mercutio included.
In May 2016, Tsiambwom Akuchu played the role of Mercutio in the University of Montana School of Theatre and Dance production of the play and basically stole the show. If you saw it and know your hip-hop, you might have picked up on the way Akuchu began the speech by tearing down the stairs from the balcony and straddling the steps in a classic b-boy stance, spreading his arms and posturing toward the audience. As the Queen Mab character in Mercutio’s speech became creepier—she delivers dreams of “cutting foreign throats” to soldiers and talks of baking “the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs, which once untangled much misfortune bodes”—Akuchu began slowly crawling across a part of the stage that jutted into the audience.
“I slid up to it and I took the zero position—the most neutral position in breakdancing,” he recalls. “It’s the position you can do anything from. And I worked an over-the-top abstracted six-step and crawled my way to the front of the stage and reached my hand toward the audience.”
Romeo and Juliet director Bernadette Sweeney was the one who encouraged the often-fidgety Akuchu to make Mercutio a dancer. “She told me, ‘It’s supported by the script,’” Akuchu says. The character is so dynamic, imbued with the kind of fury and abandon and passion for play that you’d find easily in a breakdance circle. That dynamism made Akuchu’s Mercutio vivid, so much so that it induced some anxiety in me when I saw the production. Even if you didn’t know Mercutio’s fateful end, you could tell the character was far too bright a star to survive a Shakespeare tragedy.
Ever since Romeo and Juliet, Akuchu—now a third-year graduate student in the theater program—has been exploring the intersection of hip-hop and theater. He grew up in Atlanta after moving there from Cameroon when he was 10. He taught himself to breakdance and cultivated a crew with whom he shared the art, which he developed throughout his late teens and early 20s. For his newest project, he’s created a 12-minute piece focused on African-American history and hip-hop for the dance program’s annual Dance Up Close show, which features 10 students and faculty.
“This piece I’m doing is not necessarily a perfect merging of theater and dance, but it is an exploration of the narrative capabilities of hip-hop,” he says. “A lot of people don’t understand that hip-hop culture is very charged socially and politically, and it’s really ingrained in American pop culture at this point. In my approach to the work I didn’t want to lose that history.”
Akuchu has been studying African-American history as an elective in a class taught by professor Tobin Miller Shearer. The dance piece takes a similar structure to the class, starting with slavery and moving through important historical moments such as Reconstruction, civil rights and the Harlem Renaissance. He focuses on the theme of resistance and highlights certain aspects of black history—lynching, for instance, which, in the piece, begins as a literal event and becomes figurative, as a stand-in for the violence propagated against people of color.
Throughout the piece, Akuchu weaves elements of hip-hop and traditional African dance, providing a compelling comparison of the two. He uses hip-hop, which emerged in the late 1970s within African-American and Latino communities, as a way to tell a story that’s much older. His piece starts on an auction block, where he poses as a slave just off the boat from Africa. The krumping style—exaggerated movements made with chest pops, stomps, jabs and arm swings—he employs is meant to illustrate a man who is contained by chains, and who is fighting for his life. He reenacts the ring shouts at which slaves sang and clapped and shared music in a circle, which echoes the circles that would be created a few hundred years later by breakdancers on the streets of New York.
The piece also incorporates Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” a quintessential poem of the Harlem Renaissance that begins, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot.”
“I found a recording of it done by Ice-T, which was a great bonus to the piece, because it brings it into the world of hip-hop,” Akuchu says. “I overlaid it onto a recording of Vera Hall singing ‘Trouble so Hard.’ It’s a juxtaposition of her singing about being weary and Ice-T reading this poem with a violent and cold delivery.”
Akuchu’s dance piece is part of a larger thesis project for which he’ll write a paper and create a longer theater piece that explores the idea of hip-hop dance as a theatrical mask. It’s been a challenge, he says, to try to intellectualize a culture that is so visceral. But the spontaneous, on-the-spot flavor of hip-hop is present in Akuchu’s Dance Up Close piece. Several sections of it are choreographed, but in the part where Ice-T reads “If We Must Die,” Akuchu allows himself to perform with little restriction.
“It’s my favorite part, not just because I’m a b-boy at heart, forever and always, but because it’s the climax of the whole piece,” Akuchu says. “You have all this contained, contained, contained energy that goes on, and then all of a sudden there’s an explosion of energy and speed. For me, it’s the most powerful part.”
Dance Up Close shows at the Masquer Theater in UM’s PARTV center Fri., Nov. 10, at 7 PM and Sat., Nov. 11, at 2 and 7 PM. $16.