‘A Christmas Carol’ Goes Hip-Hop in Chicago

Randi Minetor • FeaturesJanuary 2019 • January 14, 2019

A Rastafarian Jacob Marley (JQ) and his crew of reggae spirits (Jackson Doran and Postell Pringle) haunt Scrooge in eerie red and green light. Photos by Liz Lauren

Every December, resident professional theaters across the country dust off their Victorian England sets and costumes, rig up the lighting and special effects, and sell out house after house presenting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a timeless classic about one man’s avarice, a “grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” who gets his comeuppance and eventual redemption from a parade of spirits sent by his even greedier, long-deceased business partner.

If you haven’t seen this story play out in some form, you’re just not trying — it’s been a Disney animated feature and a television animation starring a squinting Mr. Magoo, a one-man show performed by Sir Patrick Stewart, a hillbilly hoedown on stage in Branson, MO, a live-action movie musical starring Albert Finney, an updated movie with Bill Murray in the Scrooge role, and a seasonal tradition in live theaters virtually everywhere.

What it hadn’t been, however, was a rap musical. So the Q Brothers Collective decided to take the tale hip-hop, and created Q Brothers Christmas Carol.

“Why not?” says Gregory Javid Qaiyum, a.k.a. GQ, the founder and co-creative director for this “add-RAP-tation” writing and performance group. “Our entire existence as a company began with updating Shakespeare, and a natural extension of that is to update anything considered a classic. The lens through which we view a classic is always changing, and we are a new lens.”

GQ and his brother, JQ, started their careers at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, in its Experimental Theatre Wing, where new ideas have strong opportunities to become performance realities. “I wanted to merge hip-hop and theater in my last year,” GQ says. “We only had five weeks to put it together, and two weeks into it, we only had two pages of original material. So we knew we had to pick something from the public domain. We chose Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, and that became The Bomb-itty of Errors.”

Bomb-itty opened Off-Broadway and ran for seven months, and by the time it closed, the Q Brothers had a contract with MTV for a hip-hop sketch comedy show, Scratch & Burn. Since then, the brothers and members Postell Pringle, Jackson Doran and Clayton Stamper have created Funk It Up About Nothin’, a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing; I Heart Juliet and Othello: The Remix, a commission by the Globe Theatre in London, England and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, in honor of the 2012 Olympics.

With such a strong connection to the Bard, it’s only natural that the Q Brothers should find themselves at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) every December to remount their wildly popular holiday show, Q Brothers Christmas Carol. The commission in Chicago began in 2011.

The Gost of Christmas Past (Postell Pringle) throws it back to Scrooge’s former days with back-up dancers JQ and Jackson Doran,as the stage turns a nostalgic blue. Photo by Liz Lauren

‡‡         Wordsmiths Gone Wild

First, the writers got down to the root of the piece. “We went to the original source material, the novella, and we scoured through all five staves,” says GQ; “staves” was Dickens’ own word for the book’s parts. “Definitely plot-wise, our version is pretty much exact. Where we took some liberties was with characters and the use of these characters.”

The four writers decided it was “an absurd but natural place to go when we re-envisioned Jacob Marley as a relative of Bob Marley,” says GQ. “When we said yes to this original idea, we went further — if the ghost of Marley is trapped in hell, and we are introduced to him through reggae, then his personal hell has to be that he hates reggae music with a passion.”

Putting Marley’s ghost in dreads opened the door to all manner of reinterpretation. “We turned Fezziwig’s into a wig and weave shop, FezziWig and Weave,” he continues. “In our flashback, Marley was a master trader, and he poaches Scrooge into his own company, where they’re mass-producing wigs, and he finds a loophole in the offshore law and ends up shaving off the dreads of the Jamaicans. We say ‘Yes’ to tiny ideas, which later become deep-seated ideas that add to the original and tell the truth of the story.”

The three ghosts that visit Scrooge overnight get their own clever twists. “We don’t say it overtly in the text, but the ghosts are the ghosts of hip-hop past, present and future,” GQ says. “So Christmas Past is like Kurtis Blow and Run DMC: old-school cadence, more of the simple flow that they had going on when hip-hop was born. He wears an Adidas track suit, a gold rope chain and a fedora.”

Christmas Present is loosely modeled after André from Outkast, he continues, “and we bring in a live horn feel. Then Future is more like Skrillex, like a deeper club, DJ, glitch-sound kind of vibe, and he’s represented by three different hooded glow-in-the-dark characters.”

Moving from one character to the next provides its own set of challenges. “We have four guys playing 25-plus characters, and the whole thing is 80 minutes,” he says. “We use minimal props and costumes, but we use large, symbolic pieces, so early on in the play the audience understands what our tools are, and they come along for the ride.”

Scrooge (John Hoogenakker) has no idea what’s in store in the twilight of Christmas Eve. Photo by Liz Lauren

‡‡         Lighting: Straddling Musical and Concert

Chicago Shakespeare stages the show in its newest performance space, The Yard, a marvel of engineering that can convert in an afternoon from an 850-seat proscenium to a 350-seat cabaret-style venue with the audience seated at tables. Nine audience chamber towers support three levels of seating, and they can glide from one place to another on air skids to create any configuration a show’s director can dream up, including a thrust, runway or arena. To form the cabaret in which Q Brothers Christmas Carol is performed, the towers are reconfigured into a horseshoe, with the main floor seating risers removed and replaced with cabaret tables and chairs.

A full catwalk system downstage of the proscenium provides access to a grid with a powerful lighting inventory that includes a wide range of ETC fixtures: 190 Source Four 750-watt instruments. The show utilizes 50 ETC Color Source Spot Bodies, Source Four 5°, 10°, 14°, 19°, 26° and 36° lens tubes, EDLT 19° lens tubes, 50 Source Four PARs and 60 ColorSource PARs. Theater lighting controls include an ETC EOS Ti-4K console and ETC Ion 4K and Nomad 256 consoles. Eight ETC two-port DMX Net3 touring gateways complete the control inventory. Dimming and relays are also provided by ETC, with four SR3-48 dimmer racks and two SP3-48 touring racks, as well as five Echo relay panels for worklight and utility power.

The beneficiary of all this new equipment is Jesse Klug, lighting designer for Q Brothers Christmas Carol and other productions. A resident of Chicago with a long list of local and national theater credits, he’s been with the holiday show at CST since 2011, and the transfer from the company’s old theater to this one opened up some new opportunities.

Lil’ Tim (JQ, center) busts a love while Mama Cratchitt (Doran) and Martha Cratchitt (Pringle) dance along. Photo by Liz Lauren

“I would say I approached this in multiple ways,” he says. “We had to find the largest gesture we could make for each aspect of the production. You want to make a gesture that people could identify and relate to, but come at it in a rock concert kind of way.”

Klug started with the rock concert perspective. “The boys are always super-game to try anything,” he says. “They want all of the words to be heard and clearly seen, so there’s a lot of sitting in a certain look. But when you leave that place, you can go anywhere.”

This means a lot of deep color saturation and some moving lights. “It has to have the big vibe, with a big space, but then it has to go into that rock concert space as well. It’s fun.” For moving lights, the theater incorporated several Martin MAC Auras.

Moving lights create energy throughout the show, but they also draw focus. “It bumps up the club kind of feel, and it brings light and motion into the audience,” he says. “It’s much more in that rock concert vein, making the audience feel like they’re not watching a play.”

Klug has his favorite moments, the ones that have seen a lot of refinement and additions over the seven years of performances. “My favorite thing in the show is the Ghost of Christmas Future. It’s the one most outside of the usual Christmas Carol. It’s all done in black light and strobe light. When Future shows up, the whole world goes dark, and you get a strobe light that hits on every bass beat. He doesn’t appear like a big eight-foot-tall guy with a sickle. You get a blacklighted three-headed guy, with an Eppe beat, from the house music world.”

After this ominous moment of unsettling darkness, the stage quickly becomes a spectacle of color and light. “At the end of the play, we turn on all the Christmas lights,” Klug says. “They wanted this moment of pure Christmas joy, like those houses that are covered every square inch in lights. Scrooge comes to his senses, he wants to celebrate, and he turns on all the Christmas lights. We’re up to three miles of light strings onstage. It’s fantastic.”

All of these effects make this show a lot of fun to light, Klug says, but there are broader benefits to being part of a different kind of retelling of the Dickens story.

“I think what makes this show unique, and the reason I like to do it, is because it doesn’t feel like theater,” he says. “It gets a different kind of crowd in. That’s the thing — doing shows with GQ and JQ are about putting new audiences into a theater situation that they were not expecting. And that new audience, they’re surprised, they’re excited,” Klug continues. “People can yell at the stage and take photos, and it feels more like a rock concert. They’re at tables around the stage, so you can bring your drink, and you go through this kind of rock concert experience.”

Audiences around the world know that the delicious moment when Scrooge awakens a changed man is the highlight of this holiday tradition, the element that brings them back year after year. This hip-hop version makes the most of that transformation as well.

“When you get to the end and Scrooge has his revelation, we do that in a very traditional theater kind of way, with his soliloquy,” says Klug. “It comes out of all this chaos and all that he’s had to wrestle with. It’s one of the most powerful Scrooge moments I’ve ever seen.”

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