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The Q Brothers give Lysistrata a feminist hip-hop makeover
Lots of theatre-makers update the classics but only the Chicago-based Q Brothers specialize in "add-rap-tations:" contemporary hip-hop reimaginings of iconic texts. Their playful and inventive takes on The Comedy of Errors, rechristened The Bomb-itty of Errors, and Othello: the Remix both played Off-Broadway. But their latest opus goes way back before the Bard, as Aristophanes' Lysistrata is transformed into ms. estrada at the Flea.
At Acropolis U, the male students are obsessed with the Greek Games -- a barbaric practice involving hazing and endless drinking -- and the women are over it. So coed Liz Estrada (Malena Pennycook) leads her sisters on a sex strike…but that's just the beginning of how these ladies challenge the patriarchy and toxic masculinity. "The sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War in the original is so memorable that a lot of people forget that the second thing the women do is take over the treasury," says Michelle Tattenbaum, who directs a young cast of fresh faces from the Flea's resident ensemble The Bats. "It's only then that the men are completely disempowered. They're not just denying their partners of sex, they're trying to take control of the entire society to make it better. That is the story we are trying to tell."
Even though, as their name suggests, the Q Brothers are all men, their show is unabashedly feminist. "This play is our way of acknowledging how fucked up the situation can be for women," says GQ, founder of the troupe. His colleague, Postell Pringle, who serves as musical director for ms. estrada, notes that three of the four Q Brothers have daughters, so systemic sexism hits close to home. "I wanna raise a strong woman like Liz," he says.
After primarily adapting and performing works by Shakespeare for themselves (I <3 Juliet, Funk It Up About Nothin' and Q Gents are also in their repertoire), the Q Brothers were excited to cede the spotlight to women and to take on a different author. "We don't borrow, we steal, that's what all the great storytellers have done, including Shakespeare," says Pringle. "We've stolen from him so much, it made sense for us to commit theft against the people he stole from, so we're doing one of the Greeks."
Of course when the Q Brothers started writing ms. estrada a few years ago, they couldn't have predicted how timely its current world premiere would feel in the wake of #MeToo. But GQ is quick to point out that these problems are not new. "These issues existed way before this movement, and we are all very happy that they are coming to light for the sake of our society," he says. "To some extent it also makes our musical more prescient, however, had that stuff not happened, the show would still be just as relevant."
Throughout the creative process, Tattenbaum shared her worldview as a woman with the Q Brothers. "They were very willing to trust me when it came to references of feminism," she says. "One of the first things I introduced them to was the concept of womxn, which is more inclusive than the previously used womyn." The fact that womxn had an x proved to be catnip for the writers because "x rhymes with sex, and it also allowed them to create tension between some characters and to mark through text and language how Liz grows," Tattenbaum explains.
Not to imply that ms. estrada is all politics and no fun. The source material is a comedy after all, and the Q Brothers' remix is raucously witty (song titles include "Sex in Your Face," "Kick It in the Dick" and "Re-vagina-lution") with catchy beats and clever wordplay that inspire lots of laughs while tacking longstanding issues that date back to, well, the Greeks. According to Pringle, making the show was an exercise in empathy for the guys. "We four old men opened up our minds and hearts to hopefully accurately tell a woman's story."
To read about a student's experience at ms. estrada, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: The cast of ms. estrada. Photos by Hunter Canning.
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