A classic in the world of black theatre and hip-hop dance, Rennie Harris’ Rome & Jewels is coming to the Pittsburgh Playhouse this Thursday, February 8 for a performance and Q&A session.
Combining the timeless Shakespearean play Romeo and Juliet with deep-rooted, traditional hip-hop dance, Rome & Jewels puts a modern spin on the beloved play. It features talented dancers from the original cast who specialize in techniques such as b-boying and popping.
“When I was young, I saw West Side Story and immediately thought to myself, ‘why aren’t there street dancers in this movie?’” Harris says in an excerpt from his website. “I re-imagined it with street dancers every time I watched the film.”
Similar to West Side Story, the warring families of Rome & Jewels are rival gangs. Rome falls in love with Jewels, who is Tybalt’s girlfriend rather than cousin. The war and violence that follows is expressed through hip-hop dance. In doing so, Harris creates a sense of wholeness, where elements of dance and setting go hand-in-hand to better reflect the show’s theme of love versus violence.
Once an all-male cast, the revival now features female dancers as gang members. Jewels’ character is implied rather than shown, with the show remaining largely unchanged since its original release in 1999, giving it a “nostalgic” quality as described by a New York Times review of the show.
“Rome & Jewels is a story of fear, love, violence, and triumph that can give us insights into many of the racial, religious, and economic questions we face,” says Harris in an excerpt from his website. “The goal of restaging the work is to introduce new audiences to my work and the essence of real Hip-hop.”
And Harris knows real hip-hop. Born and raised in an African American community in North Philadelphia, after high school, Harris joined New York dance group Magnificent Force. During this time, he toured and opened for legendary rap groups and musicians such as Madonna, Super Nature (Salt N’ Peppa), Run DMC, Brandy and LL Cool J to name a few. Harris returned to Philly in the late 1980s, and by 1992 had started his own dance company called Rennie Harris Puremovement.
Originally released in 1999, Rome & Jewels is Harris’ third evening-length work and is seen as the breakthrough work that catapulted him and his company to new artistic heights. Since then, Harris and his company have toured and received awards on both the national and international level. Just as focused on education as it is performance; Puremovement was selected in 2012 by President Barack Obama to serve as cultural ambassadors to the Middle East, performing and giving dance workshops in Egypt, Israel and Palestine.
“Harris doesn’t believe in entertaining the youth,” his website states. “He believes in educating them.”
Tickets are available for $5 for Point Park students and can be reserved online through the Playhouse website.