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'The power of word and wit' take center stage in Indy Shakes' Hip Hop Shakespeare of Richard III

Ricky 3 - Played by Shawnté P. Gaston - Photo courtesy of The Orange Portrait.jpg
Ricky 3 - Hip Hop Shakespeare Coverpage 1.png
Actress Akili Ni Mali - courtesy Indy Shakes.JPG
Posted at 7:07 AM, Jul 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-21 14:09:33-04

INDIANAPOLIS — William Shakespeare's play "Richard III" at the Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre will not look like any past production of the legendary playwright's historical drama.

The Indianapolis Shakespeare Company (Indy Shakes) is remixing the telling of Richard III in "Ricky 3: A Hip Hop Shakespeare of Richard III."

Ricky 3 director Mikael Burke says the meaning of Richard III and Shakespeare's language remains unchanged in the production. Still, the story's telling will differ from its traditional form as they incorporate rap and hip hop.

"It is close to Shakespeare's original intent in terms of what the play is meant to do, what questions it's asking of the audience, I think, and the language, as it could possibly be," Burke said.

Using the style of hip hop music to tell the story of Richard III helps do several things, according to Burke, such as streamlining the show, which, for instance, cuts down the nearly 4-hour script to 2 hours. Plus, incorporating the style of music also brings two kinds of art communities together.

"The theatrical Shakespeare side and the rap and hip hop sides of these two art forms are actually very, very close together. They're all actually just incredible forms of verbal storytelling and demonstrate the power of word and wit," Burke said.

Ricky 3 - Hip Hop Shakespeare Coverpage 1.png
The cast of "Ricky 3: A Hip Hop Shakespeare Richard III" pose for a promo of the play in performance at the Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre from July 21, 2022, through July 30, 2022.

Chinyelu Mwaafrika plays Lord Hastings, Sir James Tyrrell, and is part of the ensemble in Ricky 3. As an actor, hip hop writer, and a person who values Shakespeare, he is excited for these different art forms, originating in two distinct periods, to come together on one stage.

Mwaafrika says he thinks many people see the name Shakespeare and think of it as an entirely different world than the one we currently know. It can be intimidating. But, he says, think again.

"It is just plays. It is just poetry. And it is just storytelling. And hip hop is also all of those things," Mwaafrika said. "It is grounded in human emotion and human experiences, and that's, like, what connects these two."

Mwaafrika is excited about Burke's directing style, saying he is intent on ensuring the show's music always serves a narrative purpose.

"It's not just there to look good and sound good and to get people excited. It's there to assist with the world that we're trying to build and the narrative that we're trying to build," Mwaafrika said.

Burke says he's not a hip hop expert by any means, but he is an appreciator of hip hop.

In thinking about the power of rhythm, flow, cadence, and the bending of words and what that can do for a story, Burke says the character of Richard III leaped out at him as it relates to rappers.

"He is a master of spinning a story and holding the power in the room by ensuring that he is the smartest one in the room, and he does that through verbal prowess," Burke said.

Ricky 3 - Played by Shawnté P. Gaston - Photo courtesy of The Orange Portrait.jpg
Shawnté P. Gaston plays Ricky 3 in the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company's production "Ricky 3: A Hip Hop Shakespeare Richard III."

The story of Richard III is one of unchecked greed and what happens when someone's desire for power goes too far.

"The opening of the play is him (Richard) telling us that he's going to be the villain in this play, and, you know, hold on to your butts while we watch him just move pieces off the board to get himself to the crown," Burke said.

Although steeped in specific British history, Burke says this play has proven to be timeless and is, in some way, a reflection of today's society.

"After the last few years that we have had in this country and also all over the world, I think this question of how dotyrants come into power; how do they hold power; and what is our individual and personal responsibility to that effect? I think this is a really fun and fascinating look at that sort of playbook of how that happens and our own roles," Burke said.

Actor Akili Ni Mali says the timelessness of Shakespeare's plays makes it a joy to portray his characters, because the storylines do not rely on gender or race to tell the story. Instead, she says, "It's relatable to all human beings."

"I want people to take that away from these characters. That I can relate to you, not because of necessarily these factors about you that you can't control, but because of the story," Mali, who plays Lady Anne and others in the Ricky 3 ensemble, said.

Actress Akili Ni Mali - courtesy Indy Shakes.JPG
Actor Akili Ni Mali plays Lady Anne and several others in the ensemble of "Ricky 3: A Hip Hop Shakespeare Richard III."

Burke says Ricky 3 shows how "very good things can become very bad things depending on who's the one holding the thing."

"I think that is what's coming through in this play. That, like, Richard is taking something that is wonderful and joyous, that is so fun and entertaining for us, as viewers, and using it to do awful things," Burke said. "And what does that say about us? That we find ourselves so enraptured by what he's doing differently and how he's doing it, that we're forgiving what he's doing."

Indy Shakes' Ricky 3 is free and will be playing at Riverside Park's Taggart Amphiteatre starting Thursday, July 21, through Saturday, July 30. Doors open at 7 p.m., with a showtime start of 8 p.m.

WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at shakkira.harris@wrtv.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.

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