Hip-hop theater gets Luckey

Ariel Luckey 1

For a long time, Oakland activist and hip-hop theater artist Ariel Luckey (above, photo by Amanda Salzman) suffered the same social, cultural and historical amnesia that afflicts many of us. But he cured his amnesia by paying attention. And using everything he learned, he created a show.

Luckey grew up amid the rich, multicultural diversity of the Bay Area and knew his ancestry had Jewish and Christian roots, but he wasn’t clear what his cultural identity was, as he says, “besides being a generic American whatever.”

“I was coming into consciousness as a young adult, striving to understand who I am, where I come from,” Luckey says on the phone from his North Oakland home. “Asking deeper questions led to an interest in my family history and finding out where they came from, when they immigrated and what they went through.”

His first step was to interview his last living grandparent, his mother’s father, who now lives in the Midwest but spent much of his life on a Wyoming ranch, which, in the 1920s, really was the wild, wild West, with no electricity or running water, where the buffalo roamed and the deer and the antelope played.

“I had heard stories about the famous cowboy childhood of my grandfather, but I had never really talked to him as an adult and gone into the deeper dynamics,” Luckey says.

Delving into how the family got the land for the ranch in the first place, Luckey learned that his great-grandfather had homesteaded the land, which essentially means the government had handed over land to the family. So Luckey asked his grandfather who had been on the land before their family had it.

“He said it had been empty,” Luckey recalls.

That sparked a whole lot of questions for Luckey, who was then 23. He returned home to Oakland and began researching intensely, and he found out that within 10 miles of his family’s ranch in 1876, there was a major battle between the U.S. Army and the Northern Cheyenne, who were in their winter camp. This was just after the Battle of the Little Big Horn (aka Custer’s Last Stand), where the Army had suffered a brutal defeat. Federal policy dictated that soldiers hunt down resistant tribes and kill them or send them to a reservation.

The Army attacked at dawn, killed a number of the tribe, burned the village and sent the rest off into the snow with no supplies. Though many members of the tribe died in the harsh winter, the survivors turned themselves in to a reservation in the spring.

Ariel Luckey 2

“A major turning point for the Northern Cheyenne had come, essentially, on land given to my family 45 years later,” Luckey says. “It was heavy when I found that out, and it makes this direct link between me and my grandfather and our family’s experience to a much broader, bigger experience of genocide of Native Americans. That was kind of a hard thing to sit with.”

Being an activist, a teacher, a poet and a performer, Luckey, now 29 (photo at right by Maryam Roberts), processed all this new information through art.

“It occurred to me that this is really a much bigger story than my family’s story,” he says. “Most white people have some version of this as part of their history. Studies say one out of three white Americans have at least one ancestor who homesteaded. This is really part of the nation’s legacy that is not talked about or acknowledged.”

A couple years ago, Luckey had taken part in Intersection for the Arts’ Alternative Theatre Institute, where he worked with noted Bay Area actor/director Margo Hall. When he started to create a show based on his family’s history, Luckey approached Hall about directing.

“What impressed me about Ariel is that this isn’t just a job. It’s his life,” Hall says. “He’s an activist, and I thought to myself, `Wow, look at this young hip-hop artist practicing what he preaches.’ The piece itself deals with white privilege, and I hadn’t really heard a lot about that. There was so much history in the piece I didn’t remember from high school. And he’s such a go-getter and such a hard worker, I knew we would be able to make a beautiful piece.”

After a number of workshops and test runs, Luckey’s solo show Free Land has its world premiere this weekend at Berkeley’s La Pena Cultural Center.

The 90-minute show, which features a score and sound design by Luckey’s brother, Ryan, that is scratched in onstage by DJ Sake1, begins with Luckey’s own story—a kid falling in love with hip-hop and learning about cowboys and Indians, learning about the Homestead Act in high school history and thinking it was boring as hell. He progresses through his experience of learning about his family’s ranch and the battle that took place nearby.

The battle itself is depicted in a rap song based on first-person narratives of people who were there, soldiers and natives.

“My intention with the piece is to critique the way history is taught in this country,” Luckey says. “I have to say that my wife is a history teacher at Berkeley High School, and I know there are some amazing teachers out there. But I think, systematically in this country, history is taught from a very European perspective and is pedagogically very boring and not for the iPod generation. I want to take history I think is important and fascinating and make it accessible to young people today.”

To that end, Luckey has developed an interactive workshop for schools or other groups that present Free Land in which he asks people to share information from their backgrounds, like where their great-grandparents were born.

“I’m amazed how many people don’t know the answer to that, let alone what native people lived on the land,” Luckey says. “People don’t know the names of their great-grandparents, let alone what their lives were like. It’s a broad generalization, but people around the world tend to have more connection to their histories, more honor for their ancestors than we do in our fast-paced, materialistic consumer society.”

Ariel Luckey’s Free Land is at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday (May 1-3) at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $7-$12. Call 510-849-2568 or visit www.lapena.org for information. Visit Luckey’s Web site: www.freelandproject.com

Here’s a sample of Free Land:

Danny Hoch takes over

It’s been 10 years since Danny Hoch jolted the Bay Area theater scene with Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, his dynamic solo show at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Since then, he has worked diligently to make hip-hop theater more than just a passing phase. He founded the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival, now in its eighth year of presenting a new generation of theater artists in the Bay Area, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Hoch’s native New York.

While Hoch has gone on to create other solo shows — Pot Melting, Some People — he has also dabbled in movies. You’ve seen his tough-guy mug in American Splendor, Blackhawk Down, War of the Worlds and the recent We Own the Night, among others.

The last year was particularly busy for the 37-year-old theater artist. He directed Representa, written by and starring Paul Flores, as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. He wrote and directed his first multicharacter play, Til the Break of Dawn, last September, and he’s been developing his latest solo show, Taking Over, now having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

“The last few years I’ve been trying to do some different things,” Hoch says from Berkeley on his way to rehearsal. “It’s been a while since I had a new solo show. Had to get talked into it. I did solo shows for such a long time and took them on the road. And it’s just you. It’s lonely, honestly, a lonely experience.”

But now Hoch is back and working with Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone to put the finishing touches on Taking Over, which Hoch workshopped last fall in Minnesota and Washington, D.C.

“The work I’ve done the last few years has been fruitful in many ways,” he says. “Now that I’m back on stage, I’m getting my old chops back.”

The new show has been simmering, he says, for 20 years and is based on Hoch’s Brooklyn neighborhood, which has been undergoing a whole lot of changes. Some would call it gentrification.

Hoch says it’s more akin to colonialization. He has a whole, complex theory about how the rich fleeing cities for the suburbs then clamoring to get back into the cities is akin to a Medieval feudal society.

“Why neighborhoods become more expensive and why people from all over the country flock into cities, not for economic reasons but for luxury reasons and for creative and artistic reasons, is complicated and heavy,” Hoch says. “One of the things I like to say is gentrification is an excuse not to say the word `colonialization.’ People think that once a place has been colonized, it can’t be colonized again. But it can — again and again. That’s what’s happening.”

At readings of the play, whether in Berkeley or in the nation’s capital, audiences are responding and sticking around for the post-show discussion.

“Last March in Berkeley, I couldn’t leave the theater because people kept telling me about this happening in Oakland and San Francisco and parts of Berkeley. There’s a major economic and demographic shift happening, and it’s creating movement and displacement — it affects everybody.”

The topic is so relevant, in fact, that Hoch says he’s only telling part of the story.
“It became clear as I was making the show, which is all true, that there’s so much I may have to do Part 2 and Part 3.”

Here are some random Hoch thoughts on his art and his life.

On directing his multi-character play Till the Break of Dawn: “Since I wasn’t performing in it, I thought it would be less work. Ha! It was 50,000 times the work because I was writing and directing, which was not my intention in the first place. Don’t know if I’ll do that again soon. It was not a mistake, but it was just an incredible amount of work and demand on my mental capacity. Then I thought, `Now I can go do a solo show. That’ll be easy.’ Now I’m finding it’s 50,000 times the amount of work of writing and directing. I have a new appreciation for directors and the alleviation of all the pressure not to have to think about certain things.”

On working with director Tony Taccone: “He’s really, really smart and sharp. We yell at each other. We’re just New Yorkers. Yelling is just conversation. We’re old-school New Yorkers.”

On the final result of Til the Break of Dawn: I think I did OK as a director and pretty good as a playwright. Could have done better in both. I’m really hard on myself. I also think that I achieved something pretty amazing. That was proven by the reaction of the incredible audiences that came to the show. Again, I managed to bring a young, diverse audience into a theater that was completely moved and really inspired by the play.”

On the evolution of hip-hop theater: “Hip-hop is such a loaded word, loaded with the wrong cultural references because of mainstream commercial culture. A lot of times, hip-hop theater is perceived by regional or nonprofit or for-profit theater world as a novelty. Or as music. People expect breakdancers to come out. It’s unfortunate because what’s happening in the meantime is that this entire dialogue, this language and canon from the hip-hop generation is being ignored. My fear is that the stories of the hip-hop generation — forget the breakdancers and rappers — is not going to be popular until 500 years from now. That’s unfortunate because these stories are immediate and urgent and necessary. When the stories are embraced, they’re embraced as a novelty or a one-shot deal, not as a movement, a genre or a generational niche or aesthetic. They fill the color slot for the season. Or this is the show to write the grant to get the young audience in. It’s that black and white. It really is.”

On the necessity of researching a play: “No research. I don’t like to read. I carry around a stack of articles, but I didn’t read all of them. They reinforce what I’m already doing.”

On mounting another solo show 10 years after the highly successful Jails, Hospitals & Hip-hop: “Am I 10 years smarter? I’d like to think so. My effectiveness at distilling monologues is a lot faster. It takes less time for me to think about how to distill the many ideas I have for a character into a monologue, which is a good thing. On the downside, it takes a lot longer to memorize the script. And yeah, it’s physically demanding. I don’t remember it being this physically demanding in rehearsal. I remember it in performance and in an eight-show week. But not before the show opens. I’m exhausted.”

Hoch’s Taking Over continues through Feb. 10 on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33 to $69. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Here’s Hoch reading his 9/11 poem “Corner Talk” on “Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam” on HBO. Language is R-rated, so watch or don’t at your discretion.

Here’s another “Def Poetry Jam” clip, with Hoch defining what hip-hop is (or isn’t) in the poem PSA.