After putting together a trilogy of musicals marking the past, present and future of hip-hop culture, local writer and director Psalmayene 24 was looking for a new challenge. He turned to the familiar childhood story of Snow White.
With characters like the jealous stepmother and kind-hearted lead Snow White, “I just felt like I could have a lot of fun adapting and looking at ways to transform those characters and updating them because they are so iconic,” he said. “One thing that hip hop does is it makes the old new and it creates new material that hopefully becomes classic. I thought this would be the perfect story to do that.”
The world premiere of “The Freshest Snow Whyte” is on the Imagination Stage through March 18. A futuristic, hip-hop adaptation, it is set in the year 3000 where Snow Whyte is a graffiti artist competing against her arch rival, Kayne East, over which one of them creates the freshest images in the universe. A Simon Cowell-esque character named Mira will be the judge.
Estimated to run about 70 minutes, the musical is geared toward children ages 5 and older. “(Hip hop) That’s (kids) language,” Psalmayene 24 said. “That’s how they express their thoughts and feelings in the world–not only through the art form itself of rapping and hip hop-based movement but even in terms of serving cultural references, I feel like that is the world they have lived in and grown up in.
“(I feel) the best way to connect with kids today is through telling stories in an art form they are familiar with and that actually has their DNA in it. Hip hop is a culture that was created by kids who were in elementary school and junior high school, which eventually evolved into big commerce. I feel like because of that, it has this spirit of youth in its art forms and in its language.”
Playing the over-the-top Kanye East will be Calvin McCullough who is coming back for his fourth show at Imagination Stage. Last season, he was playing Captain Joe in “Looking for Roberto Clemente” when Psalmayene 24 asked him to audition for the East role. “They told me the concept of the play and I thought it was kind of hysterical,” he said. “…I thought it was a really interesting idea.” During the audition, he recalled, “I was blown away by how funny it was. I was cracking up just by reading it.”
East, who takes on the stepmother’s original role, is very arrogant, self-centered, and wants to be known as the best in the world. “I tried to keep similarities between Kayne West and Kayne East, but at the same time, I tried to create my own little character as well,” McCullough said. “Really making him over the top and super, super emotional and high intensity as much as I can. I take aspects of Kayne West and intensify it 100 times.”
So, is it difficult to play someone inspired by the unpredictable West? “It’s very interesting,” McCullough said. “I enjoy playing the bad guy. It’s really fun. …It’s easier for me to let go and just go for it. The way I see Kayne East, and especially Kayne West, is just (that) he says what is on his mind, does what he wants. He doesn’t care what people think about him. He’s very brazen.”
The role offers additional challenges to the actor who must change into different characters–such as a dancer and a police officer–to trick Snow Whyte. “The most fun I am having is being able to play with my voice because I am able to do different things with my voice in the show and step into different characters,” he said.
While ‘Freshest’ is the fourth show of Psalmayene 24’s at Imagination Stage, it is the first of his five-play STEAM cycle that explores science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics through the lens of hip-hop culture in the context of theater for young audiences. His love of theater began in elementary school when he played an orphan in “Annie.” “I was bitten by the acting bug,” he said. “It felt great to be on stage.” Growing up in Brooklyn, he formed a connection to hip hop through dancing at block parties. “I was one of those kids who would get out there on the cardboard and do my thing,” he said. “I just loved the aspect of performing.”
Psalmayene 24 turned to writing and directing to expand and create more opportunities for himself as an actor. “As an actor of color, I didn’t see the types or volume of roles that was satisfactory,” he said. “Instead of just complaining about it, I decided to do something about it. I didn’t even know if I necessarily had a facility or a talent for writing, but I figured I would try my hand at it. Luckily, it has been working out.”
“Freshest” took between 12 and 18 months to write, going through about six drafts. “At the core of the show is the spirit of equality,” he said. “Really getting in touch with the idea that we are all equal intrinsically and that everyone has equal value. We don’t have to be obsessed with this idea of winning and being the best at all costs.”
Psalmayene 24 believes this is an important time to have a play like ‘Freshest’. “I am very proud and happy to have this opportunity to explore the creative potential of hip hop, and I think people are going to see hip hop used in ways that they typically don’t see it being used in pop culture.”
The Freshest Snow Whyte, best for ages 5-plus, runs through March 18 in Imagination Stage’s Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Tickets, starting at $10, may be purchased at www.imaginationstage.org, at the box office or by calling 301-280-1660. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.