The enthusiastic crowd of school children erupts in waves of handclaps while several kids start bouncing in their seats, as an offstage MC spins a medley of R&B-infused raps including “Hey Diddle Diddle the Cat with the Fiddle” and “Humpty Dumpty.”
Just when the young audience can bear the suspense no longer, Jay and Will, aka the Brothers Grimmz, strut out onto a stage previously deserted save for the show’s set: the back of a tenement and its fire escape. After hitting the road telling tales, the hip-hop dance pop sensations are back with a program of remixed fairy tales, and these stories with a beat are a far cry from Disney’s wonderland of palaces, princes and golden coaches.
Grimmz Fairy Tales was developed at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte at ImaginOn, where it put on its world premiere at Wells Fargo Playhouse last month and will run through March 15. (After its inaugural run, Grimmz will go on the road to Ohio, and subsequently tour the U.S. next year.) The show is both brainchild and labor of love for director Christopher Parks, and performers Ron Lee McGill and Rahsheem Shabazz, who play Will and Jay Grimmz.
The high-concept conceit, choreographed by Shabazz, is that we’re witnessing a hometown show by the brothers, featuring dramatizations of their hit songs: “Snow White and the Seven Shawties,” “Hansel and Gretel: Lost in the Hood,” “Down with Rapunzel” and “Break, Cinderella, Break!” It’s a deft conflation of storytelling through the ages, coupling modern rap with the bardic traditions of the ancient world.
But if that was all the show offered, it wouldn’t resonate so deeply with kids and parents. The performers impart valuable life lessons while addressing children’s experiences that are both up-to-the-minute and timeless: cyberbullying, homelessness, adjusting to mixed families and discovering your inner joy.
“We’re using [the original] Grimm’s fairy tales to make people aware of their own self-healing,” McGill offers.
“And build a community of people who are not willing to just look on as others suffer,” Shabazz adds.
It’s a bold agenda, but Parks, plus the two childhood friends McGill and Shabazz, are convinced that the building blocks of a kinder, more empathetic world are hiding in plain sight within the collected fairy tales first published in December 1812 by German academics Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.
After the three dramaturges joined forces and discovered kindred souls on Children’s Theatre’s production of Last Stop on Market Street in the fall of 2018, they determined that they would collaborate again.
Shabazz floated the idea of a hip-hop show for kids. “Why not a rap rendition of Grimm’s fairy tales?” was Parks’ rejoinder. Hansel and Gretel rhymes seemed to flow freely, almost unbidden, and the seed for Grimmz germinated.
In an interview after a weekday morning performance of the show for an audience of school children, the three Grimmz creators share that they’ve changed many particulars of the revered and familiar tales, in some cases well beyond recognition, yet they feel the lessons contained in the classics resonate in our era.
The original Grimm’s tales are often grim, McGill admits, and while the endings of the Grimmz versions may be different, they retain the ambiguity of many of the originals. “We didn’t want to water it down,” McGill continues. “We wanted to give people something to chew on.”
“The Grimm’s stories are all about children getting thrown into adult situations,” Shabazz says.
Parks interjects that it’s a common misnomer that fairy tales have to have happy endings.
“Grimm’s fairy tales are not tied up in a bow at the end,” he maintains. “There is a lot of ambiguity in the way they end and what will happen to the protagonist.” That true-to-life approach carries over to the new versions crafted by the trio.
“If we were to package everything up into ‘Happily ever after,’ people wouldn’t care about this show,” McGill insists.
“Things aren’t as easy as we want them to be. None of the heroes in our stories walks away to the golden palace,” Parks maintains. “That’s on purpose.”
Each of the Grimmz collaborators dedicated their lives to theatre at an early age.
Parks, now 49, is producing artistic director of the Experiential Theater Company in Somerset, New Jersey. In addition to directing Last Stop on Market Street, he was also director and playwright for Journey to Oz and Sunjata Kamalenya at Children’s Theatre.
With his father a scenic designer and his mother a producer, Parks grew up in theater. He launched a series of popular New Jersey Renaissance Kingdom events with his brothers, and with that early success under his belt, he never looked back.
“I love telling stories and giving people an opportunity to celebrate life and art,” Parks explains.
“I was born in a trunk,” McGill says. “My mother is an actress as well as costume and fashion designer.”
A self-described quiet kid with a big imagination, he started doing print work at age 3, and began performing onstage soon after. Attending Hillside High School in Durham, he chose a theatre elective. “That’s when I started to take it seriously,” the 33-year-old writer and performer remembers.
A year later McGill tried out for a production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He quickly bonded with another young actor who landed the lead role in the show, Rahsheem Shabazz.
“Something just drew me to the theater,” Shabazz says. “It was all the emotion I had inside — things I had built up, all those experiences of being young.”
He took part in a school play, portraying a spider that terrorizes little Miss Muffet. As part of the show, kids would throw pie in his face.
“As much as I liked eating pie, I realized that there was more to theatre than just the pie,” the 31-year-old writer, performer and choreographer says chuckling. “There was a table that we could sit at together.”
Fast forward to high school, and Shabazz saw parallels between himself and the part he played in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Here was a troubled kid who lucked into a golden ticket to become part of the magic at a fabled factory, just as Shabazz had stepped behind the curtain to find an outlet in theatre.
Rap also was a formative force for McGill and Shabazz. Prior to performing at Children’s Theatre productions including The Snowy Day and Other Stories followed by And in this Corner… Cassius Clay, McGill pursued a career in hip-hop, performing as Ronnie 2G.
By 2017, burnout and disenchantment with the music industry had set in.
“I was getting a little more mature, [and] I wanted to use my art for means other than self-indulgence and self-gratification,” McGill offers.
Shabazz also started out making hip-hop music, and he too grew tired of trying to get into the industry when he just wanted to create. He recognized that many children were heavily into the music of Hamilton, a show definitely not geared for kids. So why not give young people something tailored for them, rap that speaks to where they are in their lives?
Given their history with hip-hop, it was only natural that McGill and Shabazz immediately jumped on board when Parks floated the idea of a rap musical for children. They wanted to show that rap could be used for kids, while at the same time maintaining the authenticity of hip-hop.
“Hip-hop speaks to struggle,” McGill maintains. “By hearing a certain hip-hop song, I feel like I’m not alone in my struggle.”
The universal nature of rap’s message is also part of its appeal, Shabazz appends.
“Groups like Public Enemy make songs that one person may hear as rebel music. But then someone else hears it and [for them] it’s actually coping music.”
Grimmz Fairy Tales may be a colorful, humorous, energetic and engaging show, but at its core, it’s about kids struggling and coping.
After each story, Will and Jay come out onstage to reinforce the life lesson illustrated by each fable. In “Snow White and the Seven Shawties,” Diva the Queen, played by Octavia Hall, is enamored of the magic mirror app installed on her phone. She lives for shares, clicks and likes. When Rene Welsh-Noel’s Snow White jumps on the app for fun, she gets too much attention, invoking the queen’s ire.
Diva starts dissing and trolling Snow White, posting false and malicious rumors about the young woman. Soon Snow White’s self-esteem plummets. She believes that a loser online is a loser in real life, until the wizened friends of her grandma, the Seven Shawties, convince her to stick with people who actually know her for who she is. The lesson is don’t respond or resend, delete instead.
Hansel and Gretel, played by McGill and Isobel Gonzales, are up for adoption. When foster families try to split them up, the siblings hightail it for the forest. Hall’s old witch offers food and shelter in her home, but when Hansel and Gretel try to leave, the witch traps them with magic gramophone music that forces brother and sister into a dance that saps their will.
Gretel hatches an escape plan, but in the end the siblings come to realize that the old witch had no intention of harming them. She’s merely a lonely old person craving company. Hansel and Gretel, who have been looking for family, learn that families come in all kinds of iterations, and that sometimes family finds you.
Welsh-Noel’s nerdy Rapunzel wants to come down off her fire escape and make music with her friends, portrayed by Shabazz, McGill and Gonzales, but her mother, played by Hall, forbids it. “Your voice isn’t all that,” Mama says, referring to Punzi’s nasal bellow. It turns out Mama isn’t mean; she just wants to protect her daughter from ridicule.
But when Punzi finally lets down her hair and joins an amateur rapper, a clumsy dancer and a tuneless cellist, her mother sees that everyone is enjoying themselves. Mama pulls out a wheezing set of bagpipes to join the cacophonous yet happy ensemble, and Punzi learns that her voice is perfect — for her.
“Rapunzel is never going to get on American Idol,” Parks says. “But she’s going to feel good about herself. So many of us give up our art and passion because the wrong person tells us we’re not good enough.”
He insists that we should celebrate our joy as opposed to judging ourselves.
Cinderella, in a heart-wrenching turn by Gonzales, who only wants to be reunited with her mother. (It’s hinted that her mother may be in prison or rehab.) Cinderella’s ineffectual father, played by McGill, brings his daughter into the unwelcoming arms of a new family, ruled with an iron will by Welsh-Noel’s mean stepmother.
Cinderella doesn’t even get her own bed. Instead she sleeps on the basement floor. A kindly stepsister, portrayed by Hall, invites Cinderella to participate in a dance contest. At the contest, Cinderella defies her cruel stepmother and finds joy in movement, but a reunion with her birth mother doesn’t occur. Cinderella contents herself with her father’s promise that from now on, things will be better in her new home.
“Kids go through this every day,” Shabazz offers. “They have to live in a mixed home or with people who are not blood relations.”
In the end, Cinderella’s triumph is not that she wins the contest or gets her wish, it’s that she learns to deal and abide with her situation, Shabazz says.
Parks says some audience members have criticized this portion of the show.
“[When] the father says, ‘You’re going to sleep in a bed and nobody is going to yell at you anymore,’ people have said, ‘Oh she’s going to sleep in a bed? Good job dad!’”
Parks’ response is that people sometimes don’t realize what their less fortunate neighbors are dealing with.
“Sleeping in a bed is a huge thing to certain people, he maintains. “To have someone say that they’re going to advocate for you when [they] know you’re living in an untenable situation, that’s just as big as getting the golden stagecoach and crown.”
Shabazz and McGill say it’s no accident that the main protagonist in each of these four tales is a young woman.
In the traditional Grimm’s tales, a prince swoops in and saves a princess who’s locked in a tower or denied entry into a ball. He insists that Grimmz is having none of that.
“Life isn’t like that,” he continues, which is why Grimmz focuses on female agency. The show is about finding power within yourself and having a different perspective of life, a viewpoint that may bring you a modern version of happily ever after, McGill explains.
“The circumstances on the outside don’t change, but what’s going on in your mind does,” he says, “and that brings a new light.”
Such representation and empowerment are crucial to Grimmz, and its message enfolded in music, dance, storytelling and rap, Shabazz says.
“In life we pour into each other. But we have to save ourselves,” he offers. “Someone may give you encouragement, but those words mean nothing if you don’t believe them.”
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