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IMPRESSIONS: Rennie Harris Puremovement’s Seminal Work “Rome & Jewels” Re-Staged for The Joyce

IMPRESSIONS: Rennie Harris Puremovement’s Seminal Work “Rome & Jewels” Re-Staged for The Joyce

Published on February 13, 2023
Rome & Jewels Company. Photo by JHsu Media

Thirty Years of Rennie Harris Puremovement American Street Dance Theater

 Rennie Harris Puremovement’s Seminal Work “Rome & Jewels” ReStaged for The Joyce

Adaptation of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Directed, Choreographed, Written, and Conceived by Rennie Harris
Additional Writing by Ozzie Jones, d. Sabela Grimes, Rodney Mason, Raphael Xavier
Dramaturg: Ozzie Jones (Old Man) // Sound Design & Musical Direction by Darrin Ross
Music: Numb by Portishead, Leave It by Yes //DJs : Evil Tracy The International Showoff, DJ Razor Ramon
Original Lighting Design by Pamela Hobson // Lighting Design by Andy Schmitz
Additional Lighting by Julie E. Ballard  // Costume Design by Don Miller
Original Visual Design by Howard Goldkranz // Visual Design by Ryder Palmere
Cast & Dancers: Brandon Albright (Tybault), Angel Anderson, James Colter, Joshua Culbreath, Phil Cuttino (Ben V), Anthony Denaro, Miyeko Urvashi Rennie Harris, Joel Martinez (Merc),
Rodney Mason (Rome), Fyness Mason, Emily Pietruszka,
Jeremy Taylor, Julie Urich

February 7-12, 2023

Classics like West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet may be done to death, but Rennie Harris’ reimagining of the tale of love, fear, and violence proves that the story remains as relevant today as it was in the year 1590. Rome & Jewels is the earliest breakout masterwork of Rennie Harris Puremovement American Street Dance Theater, which was presented in its first iteration at On The Boards Theater in Seattle, WA in the late 1990s.

Now, in 2023, The Joyce Theater Foundation has commissioned a revival of the award-winning work, which was  performed in celebration of Puremovement’s 30th anniversary.

in black outfits  against the the black background the company of Rome and Jewels spread their arms to the side in unison seeming to sing
Company in ROME & JEWELS. Photo by JHsu Media

Set in the 90’s on the streets of Philadelphia (Harris’ hometown) Rome & Jewels suspends time by constantly blending the old with the new, revealing how the struggles of the past are the struggles of the present and the future.

Rodney Mason, playing the lead, Rome, brilliantly weaves his words in and out of Shakespeare, at times directly quoting Romeo and Juliet, and at others, infusing his self-written monologue with modern colloquialisms, Black vernacular, and even last week’s news — remember “that weather balloon from China”? I enjoyed these small moments of comedic relief and thought it added wit and self-awareness to an otherwise worn-out and melodramatic story.

Man screaming on a pile of rubble against a smoke filled stage
ROME & JEWELS. Photo by JHsu Media

Many different styles of dance are referenced, including hip-hop, popping, house, and breaking. But there are also movement “quotes” from beyond the street. One of Rome’s monologues comes to mind, when he bourrées on tiptoe à la Fokine’s Dying Swan. In one scene, the infamous battle between the Montagues and the Capulets becomes a dance battle between rival gangs. Each dancer takes their turn in the cypher, one-upping each other with increasingly superhuman abilities. I was particularly mesmerized by Jeremy Taylor’s house moves and felt my heart stop whenever Joshua Culbreath (aka Supa Josh) would spin or freeze on his head while also, somehow, in a backbend.

a group of dancers in t shirts and sweats in a circle watch as a man with long braids seems to balance upside down on his arms while bending his legs away from his torso. an amazing feet of strength
Company in ROME & JEWELS. Photo by JHsu Media

As I hung on to every move, completely present with each dancer and their unique movement language, an uncomfortable feeling washed over me as I noticed the projected video on the backdrop. It was security cam footage of drive-by shootings, muggings, and beatings. The graphic images, yet again, reframed the old story in the context of modern-day acts of violence. Longstanding feuds between groups of people are not a thing of the past—they claim lives every day, whether from gang-related violence, police brutality, or international wars.

in a circle formation the company of dancers some dressed in black the others in red look on as a dancer in red pants seems suspended upside down in mid-air
Company in ROME & JEWELS. Photo by JHsu Media

The piece is truly a masterwork of Street Dance Theater, skillfully utilizing text, music, theatrical lighting, videography, and dance to bring the story to life. The dancers act, and the actors dance. Ozzie Jones, a dramaturg who plays "Old Man," speaks in iambic pentameter in one scene and freestyles in the next. Because music is at the heart of hip-hop culture, DJ Evil Tracy The International Showoff and DJ Razor Ramon are ever-present on stage, their turntables towering above the dancers on a raised platform. About halfway through the show, the DJs take center stage for nearly 15 minutes as they hypnotically sample and shape sound into an instantaneous composition of infections loops that made me dance in my seat.

the older narrator lifts a dancer by the back of his shirt as company watches on
Company in ROME & JEWELS. Photo by JHsu Media

Though it may have the bones of Shakespeare and the flesh of West Side Story, the meat of Rome and Jewels is uniquely subversive and unequivocally Black. Instead of star-crossed lovers, at the heart of this tragedy is the mutual demise of anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the crosshairs of blind ambition. In the program notes, Harris says, “the Hip-hop community is always roaming… for the golden grail/money/riches, as if it were their only means of rising out of their current situation.”

the company in profile arms swinging upwards one knee lifted in unison
Company in ROME & JEWELS. Photo by JHsu Media

Notably, Juliet (or in this case, Jewels) is a character that is implied but never seen or heard. She is an abstract representation of greed and desire, and ultimately the motivation for violence. Whether they are friends, foes, or strangers, often people become collateral damage in wars for items as intangible as Jewels is in this production; namely, money, power, revenge.

a Black man with blonde short hair in center of a smoke filled stage, bodies tragically lying prone around him.
Company in ROME & JEWELS. Photo by JHsu Media

For a story that runs the risk of being cliché, Harris manages to tease out deeper truths hidden between the lines. He helps us see ourselves in the archetypes of Rome and Tybault and reminds us that we are only as content as our ability to embrace ourselves in this moment. As the lights dim, Rome stands among the bodies of his fallen friends and enemies. I share his fear and loneliness, and am left questioning: how did it all go wrong?

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