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Arts & Culture

Sonnet Man Offers Shakespeare As Hip Hop

Since everything closed last March most theater companies struggled to stay connected to their audiences.

Many turned to small-cast productions or play readings on Zoom.  In the majority of cases, that didn’t work – mostly because audiences didn’t accept theater on digital platforms. 

Since digital was the only game in town, the new struggle became how do you find innovative ways to maintain a presence with your audience.  

For Saratoga Shakespeare the answer is a program titled Ghost Light. According to Marcus Fuller, the executive and artistic director of Saratoga Shakespeare, the series features a variety of podcasts, interviews and anything they feel might be enlightening, and hopefully thought-provoking.

Their first program certainly fits this description.  It’s titled “Sonnet Man” and features Brooklyn-based educator Devon Glover using Shakespeare’s sonnets delivered to young audiences in the form of rap music.  

Fuller met Glover at a convention that focused on using the works of Shakespeare as educational tools.  Impressed with Glover’s talent, Fuller invited him to Saratoga last fall. What was planned to be a one-day visit was so successful it kept getting extended.  

The same is true of the taped episodes.  Fuller says the material was so rich the one planned episode was expanded to six. Two are already on line; the others will be released one at a time, every other week.

Glover is a math teacher who has gained fame as Sonnet Man.  His recitations of Shakespeare’s sonnets and soliloquies in the form of a hip-hop tune have given him international status. His music appeals to both adults and students.

Glover says he learned from his own experience that learning to love Shakespeare just by reading the plays is almost impossible.  He insists that because they were written for the stage they must be seen and heard.

Furthermore, he finds that to involve modern youngsters with Shakespeare the format must be more contemporary.

If nothing else, the Broadway musical “Hamilton” proved that the general public is willing to accept the once foreign sounds of hip-hop music.

Indeed, go to YouTube and listen to Glover offer Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, the one recognized by the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer day”, or listen to him deliver the inner monologue “To be or not to be” from “Hamlet” as hip hop.   It’s a revelation. 

And it works as a teaching tool.  On the first two sections of Sonnet Man, available on Saratoga Shakespeare’s website, it shows students struggling to read passages from a Shakespeare play.  However, they begin to light up when Glover recites some pieces – like Sonnet 18 - using the beats and rhythms of spoken word music. 

The idea of incorporating rap and Shakespeare isn’t new.  Many have compared the themes in Shakespeare’s plays to the contemporary social issues addressed by rap artists.

Not long ago, Doug Rappaport gave a TED Talk calling Shakespeare the biggest gangster rapper of all time.  He calls him The Notorious BARD.

Rap is often condemned in many circles for advocating gang violence, and partying behavior.   Rappaport points out there are 34 deaths in “Macbeth” and the tragedy in “Romeo and Juliet” started with two factions who hated each other, fighting in the street. 

As for celebrating a party culture, the character Falstaff has become a synonym for carousing behavior.  He also points to “Othello” as a play to understand the durability of racism and states the obvious - calling “The Merchant of Venice” a play about antisemitism.   

Glover, Rappaport and Fuller recognize that the social issues Shakespeare wrote about are still with us.  Fuller says, “We didn’t invent all our social problems. They’ve existed forever.”

Rather, he finds Shakespeare’s greatness in his ability to illuminate the essence of the issues through beautiful language. 

As for the delivery system, Fuller is pro hip hop music, pointing out that Glover doesn’t change the language.   “It’s still Shakespeare’s words,” he says.

He further makes the point that at the time the plays were written, people didn’t go around talking in verse. Shakespeare, he says, “wrote in iambic pentameter and used rhymed couplets.  That’s what engaged the audience.”

It’s hard to accept that if Shakespeare was living today that he’d be a rap star. But,even if he were that would not detract from his genius and insights into human behavior.

The entertainment industry has learned through the COVID 19 pandemic that even though delivery platforms change, social problems are consistent.

To learn more about Sonnet Man go to saratogashakespeare.org He can also be found on You Tube.  

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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