Truth being dropped over beats

Contemporary hip-hop: ideal for working out, chilling out and rocking out. Yet, embedded in its entrancing hooks and steady beats are memoirs deemed unsuitable for publication.

“Do you listen to the music, or do you listen to the fat beats?”

This difficult question anchors Kevin Alan Daniels’ DRA ’10 original work, “16 Bars//soundtrack of our minds.” A creative, hour-long tour-de-force, the one-man social inquiry premieres this weekend at the Yale Cabaret (located in the basement of 217 Park St.)

Directed by Brenna Palughi DRA ’10, “16 Bars” probes the popular tendency to “turn up the beat” and “turn down the trouble.” The freestyle production merges elements of rap, break dance and more conventional theater to examine issues of black masculinity in relation to the evolution (or devolution) of today’s hip-hop and rap music as conduits of communication and commentary. It examines themes of misogyny, materialism, socioeconomic disparities, sexuality, disease and the politics of cultural representation — all in pursuit of the lofty goal to “clear the air of the black male stereotype.”

“16 Bars” focuses on five distinct black men — Pinky, David, D-low, Jay and Daniels (himself, played by himself) — and interweaves their tales into a rejection of the monopoly on representation. Via interpersonal transitions, Daniels relays their experiences in monologue, narrative and implied dialogue. “16 Bars” is a deeply conscious endeavor to widen the discourse on black masculinity. Definitely not a soap-box production, it is, nevertheless, unabashed in its socio-political critique.

“Theater is meant to shed light on a new idea, culture, people or theory of life,” Daniels said.

This “experiment” is Daniels’ attempt to do so through the “middle ground between entertaining and educating.”

In straddling the complex space between commentary and depiction, “16 Bars” is admittedly disjointed. Daring and candid, the production periodically falls prey to its grand ambition. There are moments when its conscious exploration of social intricacies undermines the authenticity of connection. And there are also moments when its explicit goals expose a clear agenda, coloring presentations with melodrama. Still, this production succeeds in forcing a bridge between art and reality. Overall, “16 Bars” is a brave project, more an engaging and convicting experience than a show.

The aesthetic fusion augments, rather than detracts from, the developmental arc. Dance and rap work to bridge the stories, while dialogue legitimates them. The production is uniquely enveloped by the lyrical quality of the rhymes it employs throughout; it capitalizes on a blurred distinction between poetry and prose, between individual and communal experience.

Armed with a backpack, spare tee-shirt and bottle of Gatorade, Daniels does not simply carry the production; Daniels is the production. He seamlessly transitions between disparate men, shifting emotive tone drastically, yet convincingly. Emphasizing Daniels’ versatility and commitment to role, these moments are particularly striking.

It is the sporadic interjection of sobering factoids and statistics that disrupts the otherwise smooth trajectory. Yet, these moments of disconnect pull the audience into itself, inspiring self-examination.

In a production marked by transition, the sole recurring instance is the depiction of a strained relationship between father and son. They can communicate only through the medium of the music he inherits. This complication highlights the problem of media-dominated depictions in a community with high rates of single mothers, while presenting the paradox of a culture in flux. Nostalgic in its approach, the production portrays hip-hop as a means of cultural escape whose integrity has been ransomed in exchange for profit, as an art form that’s lost its way. The performance runs the risk of being trite, but avoids the pitfall through innovative expression.

“16 Bars//soundtrack of our minds” essentially asks you to do what hip-hop enthusiasts have been asking us to do for a long time — listen to the music, demand substantive content, regain its soul.

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