University of Iowa grad returns to help shake-up Shakespeare with hip-hop twist

'Rome Sweet Rome'

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Shakespeare and hip-hop: centuries apart but not worlds apart.

The Q Brothers Collective has been bridging the poetic art forms with “add-rap-tations” since “Bomb-itty of Errors” — a new spin on “The Comedy of Errors” — began winning accolades and attention in 2001.

The Chicago theater troupe’s other Shakespearean shake-ups include ‘I <3 Juliet” (“Romeo and Juliet”); “Funk It Up About Nothin’” (“Much Ado About Nothing”) and “Q Gents” (“Two Gentlemen of Verona”); as well as a Dickens nod with “A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol.” “Othello: The Remix” has been touring since 2012, and is headed to New York shortly for its off-Broadway debut.

But it’s another show in the works that has all roads leading to Iowa City. Four Q ensemble members have been at the University of Iowa for four weeks developing “Rome Sweet Rome.” It’s a hip-hop musical re-imagining of “Julius Caesar,” featuring a dozen UI students and debuting in the UI’s David Thayer Theatre from Thursday to Oct. 15.

The show is being developed through the Iowa Partnership in the Arts program, established in 1992, in which nationally- and internationally-known artists collaborate with UI students to create new theatrical works.

It’s also a homecoming for Cedar Rapids native and UI alum Jackson Doran, the Q group’s director of education, creative associate and actor, known as Jax.

The Q Brothers — named for founding siblings Gregory “GQ” and Jeffery “JQ” Qaiyum — began the “Rome Sweet Rome” project by doing a line by line translation of “Julius Caesar” into modern vernacular, using rhyming couplets, said Doran, 35, who joined the troupe in 2007. They accelerated the process, working over three months instead of the usual 1 1/2- to 2 years.

The four Q Brothers — GQ, JQ, Jax and Postell “Pos” Pringle — took that translation to the UI students, and they all began writing every day to create the new show.

UI audiences will see “a work in progress,” Doran said. “And then the idea is we have a seed of a really nice, good, full draft of what our adaptation is supposed to be, and then will continue to work on it from here, leaving the university.”

The UI production will be student-run, using 11 actors, one actor/DJ, stage managers and backstage crew.

Doran got turned on to theater in general and Shakespeare in particular by participating in Riverside Theatre’s intensive summer program for high schoolers, held in Iowa City. He has gone on to create curriculum for all ages of students, from elementary through college settings. The troupe also performs in prisons and for corporate events, and travels extensively at home and abroad.

In addition to unlocking the mysteries of language and poetry, Doran hopes his students understand the collaborative nature of theater.

“It’s never easy to make theater,” he said. “Collaboration involves saying yes to each other, and understanding each other, and being thankful for each other. Theater is inherently a very collaborative art form. It speaks to human condition of interacting with each other in order to achieve some goal. We do that in every level of society, but in this way, the inherent idea is to push a story across for other people.

“The process is most important for us in collaboration — as opposed to just getting ready to head into the performance. ... The idea is to build a small family within themselves in order to create this story, and then respect each other and understand the process of collaboration.”

In turn, he hopes the UI audiences will be entertained.

“It’s a very comedic take,” he said, “so I hope they laugh. In the depths of this pretty crazy political situation that we’re involved in, in the United States, it’s perfect timing. The original ‘Julius Caesar’ is a huge political play. We’re trying to make parallels on both sides of the fence, as far as what’s happening in America right now.

“I hope people understand that — and I also hope that they still feel the essence of ‘Julius Caesar’ through this vastly different adaptation that we’ve created. We attempt to write on various levels, with the essence of Shakespeare, hip-hop and pop culture references embedded throughout, that are usually masked. And there’s a level of satire and parody that we’re covered in throughout,” he said.

“The idea at this point, is that audience gets the layers which we’ve embedded into the play.”

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