It was a chilling case of life imitating art imitating life for the crew working on Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of. Playwright Omari Newton’s hip-hop–theatre hybrid had been inspired by the 2008 killing of Montreal teen Fredy Villanueva by police and the ensuing riots. He had fictionalized the plot to centre around a hip-hop trio struggling to deal with the senseless shooting of their DJ by law enforcement. But while the team was putting the final touches on the script last summer, Sammy Yatim, another visible-minority teen, was killed with nine bullets by police on a streetcar in Toronto.
“In Sal Capone, the person killed is called Sammy and he gets shot nine times,” says the show’s director, urban ink productions artistic director Diane Roberts, sitting on a rehearsal break outside the Russian Hall. “People will think we made it about Sammy Yatim, but it was written before that.”
Disturbing as the similarities between reality and fiction were, it was glaring evidence of Sal Capone’s timeliness. And the coproduction with Black Theatre Workshop, which premiered late last year in that company’s hometown of Montreal and will soon have its local debut here, has proven to be a perfect fit for urban ink, whose mandate is to explore indigenous and intercultural work. The show’s characters span everyone from blacks to Southeast Asians to transgendered people and First Nations, all united under the multicultural banner of hip-hop.
“Though it’s rooted in black America and the arts scene in NYC, hip-hop really translates into different cultures of youth trying to find their voice,” says Roberts, pointing to the hit status of First Nations band A Tribe Called Red, which integrates Native rhythms into its raps.
“We really do have Canada represented in the broad sense here,” she adds. “The relationships are not happy, ‘O, Canada’ ones, though: they’re grappling with their stereotypes and people aren’t afraid to speak their own truth.”
It’s just that they often speak it through rapping, in music the positive Montreal reviews called “dope” and “balls out”. Hip-hop has always been about keeping it real, and Newton carries extra street cred: he used to be vocalist for the jazz-hop band Kobayashi. Among the cross-country, multiracial cast is Vancouver MC/artist/actor Kim Vigallante. But it turns out it was uncharted territory for theatre veteran Roberts. “Hip-hop is new for me for sure; I didn’t really like it at first,” she admits candidly. “I doubted it because I didn’t think I could hook into the rhythms of the play. But I learned more about the music, watching videos and understanding the roots of it, and when I really understood the rhythms more, I said yes. And also, because the characters were so incredible, I couldn’t step away from it.”
The resulting work breaks new ground in the way it hooks hip-hop, spoken word, and experimental sound and video into the plot. For her part, Roberts likes to call it counterdisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary: “Theatre smashes up against hip-hop and video smashes up against theatre,” she explains of the work, set grittily in a graffiti-sprayed, pallet-strewn back alley, where one rap even takes place with the two performers sitting on a Dumpster.
What Sal Capone isn’t is a musical, she stresses. “The music erupts out of the actors. It comes out of their need to lift themselves out of this pain that they’re in,” she says, adding of the Dumpster duet: “He’s beatboxing and she starts freestyling: they can’t talk about the pain she feels, so they use music to make it through.”
Roberts is hoping the hip-hop stylings and diverse voices of Sal Capone will draw a younger audience out—one that’s been disillusioned with theatre in the past because it doesn’t reflect their experience, culturally or otherwise. “And I’m hoping that people that go to hip-hop concerts in droves will come, because the music is so great,” she adds.
The show is Roberts’s final one before she moves on from the company after six years, and it will leave her with much more than a new appreciation for hip-hop. “I feel like it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done because the challenges seemed insurmountable at times,” she says, “but then I was feeling so deeply in it by the time we were in rehearsals.”
Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of is at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Thursday (May 22) to May 31.