The Commodification of Trauma in Hip Hop Theatre
I had a recent conversation with an artist in the UK Hip Hop community about trauma in Hip Hop theatre. She mentioned going into the ‘Back To The Lab’ programme - run by Breakin’ Convention - adamant to make a light-hearted piece. She said she was aware there was something about a black box theatre that negatively impacts her way of creating. But she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. The outcome of her time in the programme was a piece that was instead ‘very dark and traumatic’.
This got me thinking. Does her experience speak to a larger pattern? Are we in our community encouraged to place trauma on stage? Is it the only thing that is bought by programmers and the industry? This sparked a reflection on the number of times I’ve walked out of a theatre having experienced a deeply distressing or disturbing work. There has been a lack of care towards the audience and accountability from artists and venues when presenting themes of traumatic lived experiences. This has especially been the case with works I experienced aiming to raise awareness – from mental health and abuse to racism and discrimination – by placing harrowing stories on stage with a statistic attached as an afterthought. Wanting to impact the audience should not come at their detriment. Retrospectively, I also realised I was complicit in buying into this approach with my own work.
My professional dance journey started in 2016. With a journalism degree in hand and a keen practice in Hip Hop styles, I split my time between creating dance theatre and reviewing it. Gender inequality was the major conversation in the dance industry at the time, and through my investigative blog Gender in Dance I covered everything from news to reviews of topical works linked to the debate. In January that year, I reviewed Behind Every Man by The Company, led by choreographer Lee Griffiths, at its outing in the Resolution programme at The Place, London.
Video extract of Behind Every Man by The Company, performed as part of Resolution, The Place, 2015
In Behind Every Man, 8 artists took to the stage - Charlotte Blakeman, Christina Dion, Jordan Douglas, Pola Krawczuk, Joshua Nash, Sean Osinlaru, Ezra Owen, and Hayleigh Sellors - clad in wine red skirts and black skintight tops. Through a skillful blend of ballroom, contemporary, and krump, they explored the constraints placed on women, the credit stolen from them by men, and how women’s voices are ultimately silenced - at times through self-censoring, yet mostly by men.
A distinct motif in the work shoots to mind when I think of trauma as a distressing experience as an audience member. Centre stage, under a dim spotlight, one female performer (Christina Dion) popped and writhed her hand into the mouth of a male performer (Sean Osinlaru). In my review, I remember wondering if she was attempting to silence him in the manner she had experienced at his hands. Other reviewers described it as a ‘fearless, thought-provoking, visceral, and feminist’ piece pushing at the boundaries of Hip Hop theatre. I walked out of The Place wowed. This was the first piece of work I had witnessed that was described as Hip Hop theatre, and the first major influence on what I thought this artform should look and feel like on stage.
Later that year, Boy Blue Entertainment’s Emancipation of Expressionism signified a historical moment for Hip Hop dance due to its addition onto the AQA GCSE Dance curriculum. The 11-minute work, created in 2013 for the 10-year Anniversary of the Breakin’ Convention festival at Sadler’s Wells, then later filmed at the Barbican theatre in 2017, explored the idea of struggle and oppression, and what it means to ‘break free of conformity and order, to find individual expression’.
Boy Blue Entertainment perform Emancipation of Expressionism 2: The Voice at Breakin' Convention, Sadler's Wells, 2016
In 2016, on their return to Breakin’ Convention, a reworking of the performance was presented as Emancipation of Expressionism 2: The Voice. The stage, backlit through smoke, created silhouettes of the crowd of performers. They brought the audience’s cheers to a high through a myriad of styles - from krump to hip hop grooves, popping to waacking. The staccato scratch of violin strings mixed with samples of machine gun shots as a score created a dark, broody atmosphere.
Now an Olivier award-winning company, Boy Blue is arguably the most influential street dance and Hip Hop theatre company in London. At the time, it was at the forefront of what Hip Hop theatre could look like for a large ensemble in large capacity venues and stages. In my eyes, this was it. The pinnacle of what Hip Hop theatre was and could be. What I could and should be as an aspiring dance artist. The themes of oppression, struggle, and trauma were buried by the awe and glitz of the form.
2017 came round and I had my opinion further reinforced. Back to Resolution. I noted in my review of Cindy Claes’ Things Aren’t Always Black or White that it was the most thought-provoking, bold, boundary-pushing production I had seen since Griffith’s work the previous year. Through spoken word poetry, popping, krump, and dancehall, Claes told a socio-political story of mass incarceration in the US. Here was another artist using the Hip Hop theatre form to tell harrowing, dark, traumatic stories. And in my eyes, an idea was forming. To be Hip Hop dance and theatre is to explore something deeply personal and socio-political.
Trailer of Things Aren’t Always Black or White by Cindy Claes
Later in 2017, I was engaged as a dance artist by Oxford-based company Body Politic and given the opportunity from artistic director Emma-Jane Greig to drive the piece with my scriptwriting and poetry. Father Figurine, the company’s first-full length work, was the outcome. The work, inspired primarily by my personal experiences, explored a fractured father-son relationship and masculine vulnerabilities in men and young boys. Through spoken word poetry and Hip Hop dance, the piece was centred on the two’s inability to deal with a traumatic event.
Making the piece was tough. The text was deeply personal, meaning rehearsing it was like reliving the trauma each time. Playing the son character, I recall feeling like I was mining deeper and deeper for a traumatic trigger to elicit a believable and honest performance because that’s what I had seen up to that point of my career.
Trailer of Father Figurine by Body Politic
This intense version of Method Acting was again encouraged when I joined Spoken Movement, led by Kwame Asafo-Adjei, for its 2018 work Obibini (an evening of works curated to explore identity within Black culture). In line with Russian theatre pioneer Stanislavski’s school of thought, I was told to become the character. To not only use my own personal experiences as motivation but to imagine myself as the character.
In Akwaaba, following a tribe fetching water that was used as a colonial tool of oppression and propaganda, I became the character that succumbed to propaganda and brought demise to my kin. In Family Honour, which told a domestic violence story about a priest and his daughter inspired by a heated conversation between Asafo-Adjei’s father and his sister, I became the paternal, sexist oppressor. In Loc’d In, which explored the history of oppression and trauma held in Black hair, specifically dreadlocks, I played an enslaved ‘Uncle Tom’ character that reported on his own for proximity to white supremacy.
To be given the responsibility to play these high stakes, high impact roles must have meant I was doing something right as an artist. That I was doing Hip Hop theatre right. I was validated for being quick, able and open to mine my own trauma, and embody that of others for theatrical impact. Several iterations of the work went on to win awards nationally and internationally. Later that year, the company travelled to globally renowned French dance theatre competition Danse Elargie, organised by Théâtre de la Ville, Paris and the Musée de la danse, Rennes. Out of 460 applications, from 70 countries, 18 projects were selected. Family Honour claimed first prize.
Spoken Movement perform Family Honour at Danse Elargie, Theatre de la Ville, 2018
The lesson to me was clear. To achieve success, an element of trauma needed to be present in the work. The reviews congratulating the work as ‘powerful, angry, comedic and tragic’ reiterated that and my reaction to all these experiences informed the creation of my first full-length work.
The Oreo Complex, debuted at Rich Mix, London in autumn 2018, explored the mental health effects and impact on Black identity of the ‘Black on the outside, white on the inside’ discriminatory term. Like my predecessors, I used Hip Hop, popping, and krump, along with west African contemporary forms, to tell a story of assimilation, racism and oppression. A hybrid of in the round and promenade, I portrayed a Black African migrant stripping himself of his cultural roots to adopt a spokesman like persona that was more palatable to the UK.
The work sold-out, a programming representative at Rich Mix congratulated me for the most ‘diverse audience of the festival’, and it too was described as visceral, thought-provoking, and powerful. Yet there were warning signs. Post-show, I was told a few members of my audience left after the first 10 minutes, having been negatively affected by my character portrayal. I chalked it up to just being an outlier as I couldn’t please everyone.
Trailer of The Oreo Complex by Isaac Ouro-Gnao
Elsewhere, the work of my peers was mirroring this pattern. Take Saskia Horton, a multidisciplinary artist and violinist blending Hip Hop, krump and waacking forms. Their work Life According To Motown explored race, sex and power dynamics during the male dominated Motown era. The piece was awarded the Startin’ Point Legacy Commission 2019, founded and curated by Hakeem “Mr Impact” Onibudo, at The Place. The other two finalists, choreographers and multi-hyphenates Kloe Dean and Ffion Campbell-Davies (chosen from over 25 applicants) explored male suicide and the effects of intergenerational trauma on women respectively.
In Man Up, Dean told an autobiographical story of the profound and surreal circumstances surrounding her father’s suicide. The use of rope tied as a noose was a prominent prop. In Womb Paves Way, Campbell-Davies, costumed in a cotton and silk dress common to the West Indies in the colonial era, conveyed the sexism, abuse, and oppression faced by women in her ancestry; and the consequential impact she faced in the modern day.
Trailer of Life According to Motown by Saskia Horton
A panel of industry experts made up of Jessica Greer (Programme Manager, The Place), Maria Ryan (Creative Learning Producer, The Place), Freddie Opoku-Addaie (Choreographer, Performer, Educator), Jonzi D (Founder and Artistic Director of Breakin’ Convention) and Oliver Carruthers (Director of Gulbenkian) judged the three works on the night. I imagine the same level of scrutiny was placed on all applicants. In this small sample size, each work selected as a finalist contained deeply personal, traumatic themes.
There is a significant role programmers, commissioners, and critics play in how our traumas end up on stage. The history of the examples given and how they’ve been described and validated through reviews, industry acclaim, commissions, awards, and visibility show that this is what sells. Our traumas sell.
Look elsewhere at the murder of George Floyd in the US for example. Floyd’s harrowing death is still being packaged and shared across news and social media when Black Lives Matter is referenced. Or take the passing of Richard Okorogheye. The west London teenager, Okorogheye, went missing on March 22nd and was found dead two weeks later. His mother’s mourning was played consistently across our screens, hounded to share her traumatising experience. The dance theatre industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As Hip Hop is largely comprised of people of the global majority, Black or people of colour’s trauma being treated as a commodity in society will be reflected in our community. To break this cycle of commodification, we need to take charge of our narratives, the language used, and which parts of our stories we focus on.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
“One of the best bgirls on the planet. If you don’t know, get to know!”
During her 23 years of breaking, Emma Ready has established an international reputation as an inspirational, empathetic motivator who is both approachable and accessible. Her students describe her as a “treasure trove of information” and she's known for her clear, helpful and insightful approach to sharing knowledge.
“A Rock Star for giving the type of quality answers that belong in a book!”
Emma’s leadership style has been described as inspirational and elevating. She’s renowned for her creativity and has been dubbed “10,000 Moves Master”. Her recent choreographic work looks at the issue of coercive control and has been described as “utterly awfully wonderful” and “hauntingly beautiful”.
Bgirl, choreographer, creative coach.
Emma Ready, quietly causing riots.
Documentary of The Head Wrap Diaries by Uchenna Dance
I look to Vicki Igbokwe’s Uchenna Dance and her acclaimed 2016 work The Head Wrap Diaries. The production, which I saw during its 2018 tour, is described as a ‘funny and uplifting’ show, set in a hair salon, that explores Black hair; all the while centering femininity, beauty, culture, and sisterhood. The work covered hair as a site of trauma for Black women – its policing, negative perception, or desirability in society. Yet, that was a part of a bigger picture.
‘Three fierce, clever and witty female characters’ took to the stage and explored community, heritage, womanhood, and hair. Set within a South London hair-salon called BE U Tiful, we saw characters express the high and lows of their hair journeys through empathetic monologues and groove filled choreography. The stories of struggle were given equal weight to those of overcoming and celebration.
Since its inception in Bronx, New York, in the 70s, Hip Hop has been a form of protest and self-expression. Born out of Black and Latino communities, it has been a powerful medium for the marginalised to protest against the status quo, inequality, and injustice. Yet there was a huge emphasis on living loudly, unashamedly, and expressing the joy and pride of being from disenfranchised communities. The self-expression centred on joy despite hardships. I wonder if we, as Hip Hop dance and theatre practitioners have been pigeonholed into only expressing the hardships.
I believe the difference to be between such works and Igbokwe’s is what language is used, how deliberate it is, and what parts of our stories we focus on; not only on stage but beyond it – in marketing, writing, interviews, and applications. We can’t only let the work do the talking.
Many of the works I’ve listed above have attempted to engage in creating in this manner. Campbell-Davies’ Womb Paves Way for example, shifts to being a work of self-discovery, self-love, and affirmation by its end. In an interview with Ian Abbott of the Hip Hop Dance Almanac, she felt that creating such a work was a way of ‘allowing myself to really be seen and be bare and be heard with the audience’.
In my review of Dean’s Man Up, I note how she used comedy as a tool to explore and tackle the challenging topic of suicide. It was clear she had her audience’s care and best interest in mind. I walked into the theatre expecting a tough, heart-wrenching, and distressing experience. Instead, her approach made me walk away feeling nothing but empathy and compassion.
In my case, I recognised the negative impact The Oreo Complex had when I presented it all those years ago. On the Rich Mix website, part of the marketing copy reads: ‘An Oreo is a person of mixed-black heritage: black on the outside but white on the inside. Is it an insult, a compliment or just an honest observation?’. I did not write this. My copy was edited and translated into what I agreed at the time to be more marketable. And it’s through this lens, a focus on the insult and trauma itself rather the character experiencing it, that the audience viewed my work. Like Igbokwe, I have since taken charge of the language I use beyond the stage and how I use it to highlight the humanity in my work.
Had The Head Wrap Diaries been my formative Hip Hop theatre experience in 2016, instead of Griffith’s Behind Every Woman, I wonder if I would have come to this realisation sooner. That there are alternative ways to express our lived experiences of trauma on stage. One that shifts power back to our hands as Hip Hop theatre storytellers. One in charge of how our works are perceived not only on stage but beyond it.
To me, this is a position I think the form and community should adopt in the next few years. Not necessarily avoiding trauma but engaging in different thinking and approaches. Rooted in humanity and Hip Hop’s cultural roots of self-expression, joy, and resistance despite our traumas. Hip Hop theatre shouldn’t retraumatise. It should uplift despite it.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Isaac Ouro-Gnao is a Togolese-British multidisciplinary artist and freelance journalist.
He creates empathetic and thought-provoking work rooted in traditional African realism, magical realism, and Africanfuturism.
His impact in the dance world has been multifaceted; working as a performer, voice artist, scriptwriter, and marketer for esteemed dance theatre artists and companies.
Credits include award-winning Family Honour (2018) by Spoken Movement; Olivier award-winning BLKDOG (2018) by Far From The Norm; sold-out solo The Oreo Complex (2018); nationally acclaimed Father Figurine (2019) by Body Politic; and Foreign Bodies (2019) by Ella Mesma Company.
His writing has appeared in the form of features, reviews, and poetry in publications such as Lolwe, The Stage, A Younger Theatre, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and more.
Isaac is a member of Body Politic’s board of directors and is a mental health advocate through Mind charity’s Young Black Men steering group.
Isaac Ouro-Gnao, Credit Luke Lentes
Read the Hip Hop Dance Almanac Vol 2 interview with Isaac here.