Hey, Yo! Young Lovers

Rome & Jewels is choreographer Rennie Harris' new hip-hop version of the Romeo and Juliet story, set in the streets of Philly where the Caps and the Monster Qs fight for control.

Hey, Yo! Young Lovers

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

True words when William Shakespeare set down those lines 400 years ago and still true today. No story before or since has quite matched the tale of those star-crossed Verona teens for heartache. Romeo and Juliet are so very young, so very passionate, and so very full of promise that it makes their fate all the more senseless and heart-rendingly sad. That may be why we return to it so often and in so many ways: the play itself, Shakespeare's R&J, the ballet, the musical West Side Story, the comedies Romanoff and Juliet and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), the film Romeo Must Die, and so on.

This has proven to be an exceptional season for those timeless young lovers. We've already seen a production of Shakespeare's drama at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre; a ballet choreographed by Stephen Mills at Ballet Austin; a solo performance piece by Rob Nash in which the characters from his Holy Cross High plays perform Romeo and Juliet; and, though it was not seen by the public, a workshop of Jaston Williams' comedy Romeo and Thorazine, in which inmates in a sanitarium perform you-know-what. Now comes another adaptation, this one with music and dance, closer in spirit to West Side Story, though as different from that version of R&J as it was from Shakespeare's.

Rome & Jewels is a hip-hop version of the story, set in the streets of Philly where the Caps and the Monster Qs fight for control. Rome belongs to the Monster Qs; he is its angel of death, the bringer of the ruckus, chaos, and mayhem -- that is, until he meets Jewels, a woman who introduces him to the concept of love and with it a new way of looking at life, an alternative to the gangsta life, to killing. Rome is ready to follow a path of peace, but his gang brothers Ben V and Mercutio won't have it, and the Caps won't either; they want revenge on Rome for seeing Jewels, who had been seeing Tybalt, a Cap. And that sets the stage for the inevitable conflict and tragedy with which this story always ends.

Choreographer Rennie Harris is the force behind this new adaptation, which was co-commissioned by the University of Texas Performing Arts Center. He draws on his own experiences in the neighborhoods of inner-city Philadelphia to shape the world in which his young lovers come together, and he directs a corps of powerfully talented artists (members of his company Rennie Harris Puremovement) to give this contemporary street story not only an authentic voice but some dynamic moves, via an amazing array of choreographed hip-hop spins, breaks, and jumps. It's a piece very much of our times, with a raw spirit much like West Side Story had when it debuted. And yet under its up-to-the-minute urban skin beats the same heart as in Shakespeare's play. In fact, Harris liberally incorporates the Bard's poetry into his text, finding in it a kindred rhythm and form of expression to rap. It offers proof, as West Side Story did a couple of generations ago, that the streets may be different, the slang may change, but the love shared by Romeo and Juliet still speaks to us. They die, but it lives on.

Rome & Jewels will be performed Friday and Saturday, January 18-19, 8pm, at the B. Iden Payne Theatre on the UT campus. Tickets are $35. For information, call 471-1444 or visit www.utpac.org.

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