Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera initially caught my eye because I am a big fan of using the style of hip hop music to convey narrative in theatre (see: my latest obsession with Hamilton). A co-production between b current Performing Arts Co. and writer-performer Sébastien Heins, this high energy production is not without vulnerability.  Combining original music with physical theatre, this piece delivers both entertainment and poignancy.

This “live hip-hop show” traverses through time and musical history as twin brothers, nicknamed, CashMoney and MoneyPussy “break out of the streets and rise to the heights of stardom as hip-hop performers”. A story about hard learned lessons and redemptive salvation, the complexities of this text run deep. With Miquelon Rodriguez’s impressive sound design that blends the original music and lyrics of Heins (and Rodriguez as co-composer) with throwbacks to some of the greats in the hip hop and R&B worlds, this show definitely feels more like a concert than a traditional theatre play (which, I believe, is the point).

Brotherhood
Pictured: Sébastien Heins; Photography by Dakota Arsenault

One of the first things that you will undoubtedly notice upon entering the Arts Court Theatre space is the lighting. Designed by Jacynthe Lalonde A strong collaboration between lighting designer Jacynthe Lalonde and set designer Anahita Dehbonehie, the visual aesthetic of this show screams rap concert and/or music video. The rows upon rows of brightly lit globe bulbs that dominate the upstage centre (a lighting wall  designed by Dehbonehie) are reminiscent of Kanye West’s most recent stints at Glastonbury and Bluesfest; and while I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why, I found myself suddenly very excited for whoever was about to come on stage. Furthermore, the video projections that are woven throughout the performance are a great addition of colour and texture to an otherwise bare stage.

Heins’ formal training is very evident in this piece and I don’t think anyone could deny his talent as a performer. He displays an incredible amount of energy that is undoubtedly necessary in carrying him through such an intensive solo performance. The physicality used to differentiate between characters is always clear and purposeful, and especially evident in the transitions between the brothers themselves. Moreover, there are lovely moments where Heins uses only his body to create important moments of narrative on stage most notably depicting the relationship between the twins’ parents.

It would certainly be remiss of me not to credit some of these ideas to director and dramaturg Karin Randoja whose mise-en-scene reveals a dark and deeply humanizing tale about these two brothers trying to rise above their less than ideal (but unfortunately all too common) childhoods and make it big in the hip-hop industry. The decision to characterize CashMoney and MoneyPussy simply by musical taste (i.e. Wu Tang and Michael Jackson, respectively) is a simple yet significant way to show just how different, artistically and philosophically, the two brothers are. Furthermore, the audience is able to recognize and acknowledge the brothers’ individual temperaments simply by the musical stylings alone (i.e. the smooth R&B of MJ’s ‘Rock with You’ versus the hard hitting rhymes of Ghostface Killah).

There’s also the stirring moments where CashMoney goes to prison and has to account for his negligent actions while also coming face to face with narcotics withdrawal. The text touches briefly, though no less viscerally, on themes of sexual violence and politics in prison but also on the process of atonement CashMoney experiences to reach his salvation. A truly lovely moment concludes this section where CashMoney has been released from prison and after the gate closes behind him, he takes a breath of fresh air (see: freedom and a new start) and just lives in that moment, a fully reformed and transformed human being.

It was very interesting (for lack of a better word) to see Brotherhood after The Elephant Girls on Wednesday night because the two shows, while sharing some similarities, could not have been more different in their performance styles (this is not a bad thing). Where The Elephant Girls is more of a slow burn, Brotherhood is much more faced paced and high energy. Both stories deal with individuals trying to “rise above their stations”, yet being brought down by a person they love. Brotherhood is an exciting performative exploration of street and hip hop culture.

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