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Staging a Hip-Hop Message

Rap Music Is the Backdrop of 'The Bullet Round,' an SCR-Commissioned Play


Roll over, Will Shakespeare, and tell Tom Stoppard the news: Tonight, South Coast Repertory enters the gangsta rap era.

The Costa Mesa theater is staging the first public reading of a play it commissioned: "The Bullet Round" by Steven Drukman. Until now, nothing at South Coast, Orange County's leading professional theater, has hinted that hip-hop exists. This play appropriates the rap world as its milieu.

Drukman, a New York City journalist, theater critic, professor and playwright, considers rap not his play's main focus, but a useful backdrop for his meditation on the entertainment industry's role in exploiting and perhaps fomenting violence and incivility.

The key figure in "The Bullet Round" is Joe Die Wish, a white kid from South Boston who is doing his darnedest to walk the walk and talk the talk of a gangsta rapper. We meet Joe as he is starting to hit it big with a ditty called "Cops Goin' Down, All 'Round Town." Judging from the snippet he chants in the opening scene while wrecking his hotel room, his signature number is as violent, salacious, crassly materialistic and cannibalistic of the pop-rock past (in this case, the Rolling Stones' "Shattered") as many real songs in the gangsta rap genre.

It isn't long before Joey (as he hates to be called) has pulled out a gun to terrorize a hapless room-service waiter.

The gun makes the rounds from scene to scene, changing hands each time as the play progresses (hence the title). It passes from Joey to Kevin, his sweet younger brother-cum-manager-cum-bodyguard, to Kevin's girlfriend, to her Harvard professor daddy, and eventually back to Mr. Die Wish as he takes the dais as a panelist at an academic conference on violence in the media.

The professor, who presides over the conference, has built his career as the originator of Catharsis Theory. It holds that violent entertainment is healthy for its consumers, allowing them to live out in fantasy the mayhem they otherwise would be more prone to commit in reality.

Drukman's play arrives at a time when a hip-hop theater movement is striving to coalesce. Its aim: to reach young audiences with rhythms, characters, language, attitudes and stories that hit home as their own.

Not that Drukman has anything to do with that.

"I couldn't listen [to rap] very long without a headache," the 37-year-old classical music and jazz buff confessed in a recent phone interview from his office in New York. But as a prelude to writing "The Bullet Round" last summer, he forced himself to listen to a good deal of it.

Drukman decided to write about the nature of violence after reading "Among the Thugs," a book about British soccer hooligans. The gangsta rap world, he figured, would offer a strong American parallel to Britain's sport-driven gangs.

He began to read books and listen to rap songs to learn what he needed to know.

He agrees to a point with the genre's defenders who say its extremes are meant as satire, parody, or cinema verite reportage. "But there's a visceral response when you hear [songs] about drive-by shootings, about what [violence] you're going to do to a woman and to a cop. It's hard not to throw down the earphones and put on Beethoven."

Drukman said that persevering with his audio research proved worthwhile: Much of the play, he said, "was my response to the music. You kind of immerse yourself in the ugliness of your experience, and instead of just rejecting it wholesale, I decided to write a play from that revulsion."

Drukman said he owes his nascent career as a playwright to his revulsion for the bad shows he often has been subjected to as a theater journalist. He has written criticism for Artforum magazine, features for the New York Times, and is now associate editor at American Theatre magazine.

"Seeing plays all the time as a journalist gave me the hubris to write plays in the first place. You see bad plays over and over and think, 'I can do better than that.' Then you start writing and say, 'This is really hard. No wonder I'm seeing so many bad plays.' "

Drukman has written a one-act and three full-length plays in quick succession; none has been produced yet, but South Coast, nationally known for its support of new works and emerging writers, has pegged him as a comer.

Jerry Patch, the theater's dramaturge, said South Coast wanted to stage the reading--a preliminary part of the long process by which plays are shaped and readied for possible full production--because of Drukman's talent and the play's take on a sizzling current theme, rather than because it deals with rap music.

As is the rule at mainstream theaters, the majority of the audience at South Coast has more than a touch of gray, and is more likely to have grown up listening to Jerry Garcia, Vladimir Horowitz or Count Basie than Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube or Eminem.

"Another barrier broken," Patch said. "It certainly wasn't a minus that it was about rap and we could get into a [new] world, but that wasn't the reason."

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