Theater

Hip Hop Shakespeare: Jay Are Adams breathes modern life into old prose

When Lin-Manuel Miranda initially suggested the founding fathers and hip hop go hand in hand, he was laughed at. Of course, several Tonys, a Pulitzer and a skyrocketing career later, we all know who got the last laugh. So if you feel inclined to laugh at the notion of marrying hip hop and Shakespeare, maybe think twice.

I’m At Your Window is the creation of absurdly multi-talented musician, educator and comedian Jay Are Adams. It is a hip hop/R&B/gospel adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

“This was brought on through a class that I had at Emerson College… and one of the final projects was, we had to [put on] a theoretical performance of a musical,” Adams recalls. “I didn’t grow up in the theater world, so I didn’t have any musicals that resonated with me… so I asked if I could just create my own musical. This was right after I had watched Hamilton on Disney+. I’m not saying that Hamilton gave me the inspiration, but it definitely let me know that it could be done.”

I’m At Your Window had its first workshop back in January, around Martin Luther King Day, presented at Alchemy in PVD as a staged reading with the performers at music stands. Along with a small ensemble of performers, Adams set his work in front of the audience for the first time with a selection of five songs performed non-sequentially. With the feedback from that initial workshop, a second one hit the stage of the Barker Playhouse June 12 with, save one performer (Jacob Scott), a new cast (Alessandra Grima, Jennifer Rodriguez, Micaela Chile and Marsha Czepyha, plus ASL interpreters Noemi Saafyr Paz and Victoria Pfanstiehl) and two never-before-seen songs. The cast rotated character assignments between songs, a decision Adams made to keep the interpretations of the songs fresh.

While the hip hop aspect of the project is certainly a novelty, it was not the starting point for Adams. Rather than linking Shakespeare and hip hop, the original aim was to link Shakespeare and social justice. Shakespeare, after all, was a writer for the people. It is easy to lose sight of it, especially judging by today’s standards, but writing for audiences of all social statuses was something revolutionary at the time.

Once fully staged, I’m At Your Window will be set in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, with the Montagues representing Black Lives Matter and the Capulets as their opposition. The duel (400-year-old spoiler alert) that set the bulk of the conflict and action into motion will be set at a riot.

“When George Floyd happened… I was sort of figuring out where my place was in the movement,” Adams said. “I’m not a marcher, but I can use my art.”

Adams is furthering his goal of putting Shakespeare in a social justice framework by founding What Fray Was Here?: Social Justice Shakespeare. The vision of the company is twofold: first, creating new works like I’m At Your Window; and second, bringing social justice Shakespeare into the classroom and encouraging students to engage with Shakespeare’s works in a way that makes them more accessible. As an educator himself, Adams will be holding a summer program for high school students and teaching an undergraduate class at Emerson College, his alma mater, in the fall.

In the existing songs, Adams and co-writer Dan Pomfret have seamlessly woven actual text, including much of the famous balcony scene in the title song “I’m At Your Window,” with some modern updates. Among these updates is a song from the perspective of Lady Capulet when she believes Juliet to be dead. In the original play, the Nurse serves as the primary maternal figure in Juliet’s life, while Lady Capulet was rather distanced from her, as was common of families in the upper echelons of society at the time. Here, however, she’s given a voice and a chance to expand upon her relationship with her daughter, whom she calls, “My Best Friend.”

As for the next steps, audiences can look forward to another workshop next January. In the meantime, Adams will continue writing, rewriting and further developing this promising project.

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