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Rennie Harris’s ‘Rome and Jewels’ is a poignant tale of woe

"Rome & Jewels" a hip-hop version of "Romeo and Juliet" by Rennie Harris's Puremovement American Street Dance Theater at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has been adapted in almost every way you can imagine. Some versions, like the Serge Prokofiev ballet, stick pretty close to the Bard’s original; others, like the Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein musical “West Side Story” and the Baz Luhrmann film “Romeo + Juliet,” change the venue and take this tale of star-crossed lovers into the 20th century. Rennie Harris’s “Rome and Jewels,” which premiered in 2000, takes it further still; his hip-hop version has no visible Juliet. As presented by Global Arts Live in a remounted version performed by Rennie Harris Puremovement American Street Dance Theater Saturday at the Cutler Emerson Majestic Theatre, this 70-minute “Rome and Jewels” skimps on the storyline, but the combination of street dance and street Shakespeare is so dope, it almost doesn’t matter.


The simple set comprises an urban skyline (presumably Harris’s native Philadelphia), a panel of chain-link fence at each side of the stage, and a booth for the two DJs, Evil Tracy and DJ Razor Ramon. The six Monster Q’s (Shakespeare’s Montagues) arrive first; led by Rome (original cast member Rodney Mason), Merc (Joel Martinez), and Ben V (Phil Cuttino) in a Philadelphia Phillies cap, they greet the Old Man (Ozzie Jones), who’s back in town and acting as a narrator for this tale of “star-crossed homies.” After some philosophizing in a mash-up of Bardic verse and street slang, they break into a dizzying hip-hop routine, everybody in loose synch, against a blurry video of their dancing on the rear screen. The six Caps (Capulets) sport red streetwear (as opposed to the Q’s mostly black) and, for one member, a New York Yankees cap. Their routine is just as dizzying but more b-boy and individualistic.

It’s the rapid-fire dialogue that advances the narrative, however. “Don’t call me Shorty,” Rome tells his homies right off the bat, “it’s not PC.” He laments that you’re not someone “till you’ve got a mural on some [expletive]’s wall; he starts singing YES’s “Leave It.” He quotes from Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet, the Bard’s sonnets; Mason, who was in the original 2000 cast, is so convincing, you could wish he were doing straight Shakespeare. His version of the balcony scene starts, “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Jewels is the sun. She speaks, yet she says nothing. What up with that?” When shying pebbles at Jewels’ window to get her attention doesn’t work, he throws a stone that breaks the window, then realizes it was actually a neighbor’s window and has to apologize.


Rome has the best lines. Merc and Ben V do tell him, “You used to be hard-core. You used to be hip-hop. All of a sudden you’re actin’ a little R&B.” And accompanying him to Jewels’ balcony, they ask, “She got a sister?” But otherwise they don’t really come into focus. Neither does Rome’s romance. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” and “Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied” are followed by “Jewels, you can’t run out on me at the drive-in.” Cap leader Tybault (original cast member Brandon Albright), meanwhile, asks an invisible Jewels, “Are you cheating on me?,” as if he thought she was his girl. Forty minutes in, the relationship hasn’t got any farther than the balcony scene. One of the Caps overhears Rome’s wooing and tips off Tybault, who calls out Rome.


At this point the spotlight shifts to Evil Tracy and Razor Ramon, who, in North Philly shirts, display their considerable turntable skills, delighting the audience in a 10-minute intermezzo. When the action resumes, the Monster Q’s and the Caps face off in a dance competition/rumble, everyone showing off his or her (four of the actor/dancers are women) best moves, backflips, head spins, hand spins, shoulder spins, all set to video of newsreel war footage. The dance contest looks to be a draw; the rumble sees Merc emerge with a knife wound and crying “A plague on both your houses” in Spanish. The Q’s respond by kicking the stuffing out of Tybault; Rome and Ben V stab him a few times for good measure and the Q’s do a victory dance, after which Rome wails, “Oh I am fortune’s fool.” That’s it; there’s no bedroom scene, no tomb scene, no Jewels. Just Rome and company, fools well worth watching.


Conceived, choreographed, and directed by Rennie Harris. Script by Harris, Ozzie Jones, Rodney Mason, d. Sabela Grimes, and Raphael Xavier. Lighting by Pamela Hobson, Andy Schmitz, and Peter J Jakubowski. Performed by Rennie Harris Puremovement American Street Dance Theater. Presented by Global Arts Live. At Cutler Emerson Majestic Theatre, Jan. 28.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.