Mark Kinsey Stephenson

Mark Kinsey Stephenson

Gay? Rap? Opera? Shepperd Bows Out With Bash’d!

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Editor’s note: The italicized verse passages in this article are excerpts from the script of Bash’d!, by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow.

During his three-year tenure as artistic director of Celebration Theatre, AKA “the naked gay theater,” Michael A. Shepperd has tried to change the perception of Celebration’s fare, from “works with great bodies” to “bodies of great works.”

In choosing Bash’d! A Gay Rap Opera as his final hurrah before he steps down from the leadership, Shepperd expressed a “devil be damned” determination to not run away from challenging material — even though for many theatergoers, the more apt title might be Bash’d! A Gay What What?

Yo! I’m told that hip-hop can be hard to hear / So we’re gonna make this real loud and
clear / Yo! It’s not so hard, you got nothing to fear / It’s like Shakespeare, you gotta
tune your ear!

WTF!?

Michael Shepperd

Three years ago, Shepperd knowingly walked into the task of running a theater dedicated to presenting innovative, provocative and relevant work that examines the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer experience. Celebration endeavors to challenge society’s perception of these communities and to give a vibrant voice to their evolving identities.

What Shepperd didn’t anticipate was the type of reception he would receive as an African-American running a gay theater. Some of the messages he received through the theater’s email were anything but welcoming.

Reader be warned — offensive language follows. “Why would you let a nigger come in there and change everything?” “We don’t want straight people to come to our theater!” “He’s just going to bring in a bunch of dyke stories and black fag stories!” “There’ll be black people at the theater. I don’t want to be around that many niggers.”

The hold-back-no-punches artistic director states, “It was hateful, some of the stuff. I was stunned. Then I made a decision it was time for a change. I’m going to take this journey, and if you don’t want to come on it, fine, I’ll find other people to ride the Celebration train.” His goal was for the theater to be a touchstone for the whole of the community, which meant encouraging “a true, strong diversity in the house — including lesbians, Asians, African-Americans, senior citizens and youth.” Under Shepperd’s watch, Celebration Theatre has won Ovation Awards, LA Weekly Awards, NAACP Awards, the prestigious Charlie Award from the Hollywood Arts Council for excellence in theater, and the Polly Warfield Award for “Best Season” by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.

Going out with a bash.

Ryan Bergmann and Ameenah Kaplan

Two years ago, an agent from ICM submitted Bash’d! to Shepperd with a message — “Because no one else would be stupid enough to do this show.” After listening to the score, Shepperd actually admits to being intimidated. “This type of material was far too incendiary for a small queer theater in WeHo to be doing, and I promptly shelved it.”

All you real faggots pump your wrists in the air / It’s okay to be gay, freely out and
aware / We don’t like faggot when it’s said by them / But when we say it, it’s like a word
that starts with N!

Then a year later, after a Kismet-style moment in which a copy of Bash’d! fell from the shelf above to Shepperd’s desk, “I realized Bash’d! is exactly what the Celebration should be doing. It’s what all theaters should be doing,” Shepperd says. Based loosely on the real-life spike in hate crimes in Alberta, Canada, during the 2005 national debate on equal marriage for gays and lesbians, Bash’d! explores the effect of homophobic violence and the emotions associated with any marginalized population. Two irreverent rapping troubadours tell the tale of young star-crossed Romeos as they skewer stereotypes with swaggering comedic flair against a pulsing hip-hop beat.

The West Coast premiere of the fast-paced, high-energy show, written by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow and awarded Outstanding Musical of the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival, was set into motion. Shepperd enlisted the directorial and choreography skills of Ameenah Kaplan (recipient in 2007 of the Richard E. Sherwood Award from Center Theatre Group) along with trusted producer Ryan Bergmann. All three creatives, however, wanted to make bold changes to the production from its original NY presentation. They wanted an event in the Celebration house.

“Gay rap opera”?

What’s up with that tag-line? What were the originators of this show thinking?

Yeah, you may have before thought that all rap was crap / Homophobic bullshit since
they broke the back / That shit is wack, cuz rap ain’t just for straights / So we rhyming
up stories on our tour dates!

Sheppard thrusts his hands in the air. “It scares people — a gay rap opera. What the fuck is that? Sometimes, I don’t even know what that means. The tag-line betrays the piece a little. It confuses people. Some get the gay part, but the rap has always been sort of lumped in with homophobia, and they don’t want anything to do with that.”

Bergmann concurs. “It scares off younger people because of opera, it scares off the older people because of rap, and it scares off the straight people because of gay. You’re battling yourself with a tag-line like that.”

Ameenah Kaplan

Any concerns about the triple-tag didn’t deter them. As Kaplan says, “Hip-hop, long known for its irreverent attitude towards the establishment, is the perfect companion for the LGBT struggle. Even though the rap landscape can be dominated by less than gay-friendly icons, those artists represent a small portion of the hip-hop movement. By merging the music of our generation with the civil rights movement of our generation, we send a message to those who hate that those who love are a united front.”

If you hear the word faggot, and that shit is absurd / From now on you can relax, cuz we’re reclaiming the word.

And the result after audiences venture to see the show at the Celebration? Says Shepperd, “it doesn’t matter what age they are, ethnicity, gender preference — by the end of show, everyone is drawn into the story of the piece. They’ve let go of whatever their preconceived notions are of gay rap opera. They leave loving it.”

Bergmann adds, “We made something that speaks to everyone, with a piece that a lot of people would think would speak to no one.”

The talent search

When Kaplan envisioned a racially mixed cast of two male actors, she sought versatile, likable, energetic, committed, honest and emotional hybrid performers who were half-rappers, half-poets. “I wanted them to adopt a style and not a score, finding freedom in the beats, bringing nuance to the roles.” In stepped a dream cast, Sean Bradford and Chris Ferro, who both found out about the show through an audition notice in Actors Access (a casting website).

Questioned as to what drew them to the musical, the enthusiastic Ferro says, “I’m a big hip-hop fan. I’d never seen anything like it and it sounded like fun.”

Bradford also was drawn by powerful material as well as the ability to play multiple characters. “We as artists look for great stories, how you’re telling it, why you’re telling it, how is it different. I thought it would be an interesting challenge.”

Ferro’s face brightens even more when hip-hop enters the discussion. What has been the trajectory of this rhythmic music so associated with gangsta life, drugs and violence? “The early Grandmaster Flash and KRS-One, their rhymes were about things going on in their community (the hardships of life). Then it transformed into the flashy video ho’s, champagne and all that stuff. Now you see hip-hop artists dress in skinny jeans and wear nice cardigan sweaters. They’re unafraid to rap about things mainstream. It’s changed, it’s cool, and marriage equality is mainstream.”

Chris Ferro and Sean Bradford

A resolute Bradford uses iTunes to solidify Ferro’s point. “If you check out this week’s chart, the majority of songs are either rap or have a rap artist collaborating with another artist. The genre of music has gone that way. It’s having an all-encompassing presence that is undeniable. Articulate, political, pressing issues are being told through rap.” He then turns it back to Bash’d!. “What’s brilliant about this piece is it doesn’t tell you what to feel or believe, what’s right or wrong, it just shows you a canvas of this world, these ideas and all the love.”

Ferro adds, “It’s a love story. It works and it’s fun!”

Like a puzzle that’s missing a piece / Like a coiled tension in need of release / The peace
they feel in each other’s arms / The perfect silence, the protection from harm.

March to the beatz of a different drummer

A simple “ask” by Shepperd for a DJ to play at the opening night performance led to an integral reason for the success of the Celebration’s production. Kaplan took his request to a whole other level, thinking outside the box of what existed in the previous incarnation of Bash’d!, adding another member to the troupe, a third performer — DJ Jedi.

The Emmy-winning, elite turntablist provides the musical direction, the additional beatz. Whereas most theaters would consider a DJ to be a luxury, Kaplan shared her concept with Shepperd. “Michael told me to run with it. Jedi knows this script from start to finish, knows the pace, plays with the actors even with phrasing, knows the score and makes choices in what’s important to hear. He real-time controls the show and sets the tone before anyone comes in. Jedi vibes off of the crowd. The man is beyond amazing.”

Kaplan continued to explore and experiment with other elements of Bash’d!, with Shepperd’s artistic blessing and Bergmann’s solid support. “There was an opportunity for me to add dance, music, stepping, drumming, video projection.” Having two years under her belt in film school, Kaplan felt strongly in the integration between film and theater for this piece. “That’s one of the ways theater will survive other than being that place where you can experience sweat. Unlike film, theater will survive where technology is a partner as opposed to being an accompaniment.” The entire creative production team ran with her vision and “got to have fun and play. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Timing is everything

Chris Ferro and Sean Bradford

To reach an audience and actively engage them, theatrical productions must be relevant. This 70-minute musical voices perspectives from unwavering homophobia to radical activism. In the midst of the theatrical riches of the Hollywood Fringe Festival and Radar L.A. Festival, intertwined with the pulsating, festive LA Pride celebration in West Hollywood, and coinciding with the legalization of same-sex marriage by the NY Legislature, an inspirational production of Bash’d! couldn’t be more timely in the City of Angels.

Shepperd nods in agreement. “Intolerance and bashing are still prevalent, but there is a shift happening, and that’s what this show is about. This is a new generation talking out with this show.”

A new generation speaks. Ferro firmly states, “Equality is the starting point.”

Yeah we gotta stand up before it happens again / We need to recognize, then organize,
first empathize and then exercise our rights / And it starts tonight, we didn’t spit all
these rhymes just to delight / Your ears, or to pimp your cheers / But to think about out
there while you’re in here.

Bash’d! — A Gay Rap Opera. Thur-Sat, 8 pm, through July 22. Tickets: $30. Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com.