East Bay spoken-word artist Aya de León's Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip-Hop, running for the next couple weeks as part of "Making Herstory: The Oakland Box Theater Celebrates Women's History Month 2004," is everything you'd hope a one-woman theater piece about hip-hop culture would be: It's challenging, radical, harsh, inspiring, and solid when it comes to the rhymes. But it's also funny as hell, starting with a faux-biblical introduction in which she describes the rise of rap ("And it came even to the new land of Jersey, and the Jerseyites were glad also") and its fall into the hands of misogynistic gangsta rappers -- "and many of them were false prophets."
De León's parodies of these false prophets may be funny, but they also cut deep. Set Style, a scowling rapper, explains that he has an unusual form of Tourette's that makes him revert to a hilariously wide-eyed childlike state if he tries to freestyle: "Because I'm a gangsta rapper and I cuss all the time anyway, it makes me twitch and be sensitive." Particularly devastating is her meltdown in the role of Lady Triple X Rated, a raunchy hip-hop starlet who revels in her role as a gangsta ho. De León demonstrates throughout the show that she has no trouble getting the crowd working for her (in "Cellulite," her ode to healthy body fat earlier in the evening, she gets us all calling out "go 'head, baby" à la LL Cool J whenever something is jiggling), but when her strutting sex bomb tries to get some love, the silence is truly deafening. On opening night I think we were all holding our breath until I heard a single far-off voice whisper, "Wow."
De León's politically conscious MC Positive Thought offers a brief and simple positive counterpoint, but it's when Aya plays Aya that we really see a strong, smart, self-possessed performer whose air of easy command feels earned, precisely because she is so willing to undermine it by showing her roots with wry humor. Choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith shows up as fifteen-year-old Aya, setting her adult self straight when she claims to have always been down with hip-hop and pointing out that she can't even get the lyrics to "Rapper's Delight" right (hell, even I can do that), and de León accentuates her cluelessness as a Harvard freshman being branded a sellout as she tries to register black voters in Roxbury for the 1984 Jesse Jackson campaign. She recalls her crestfallen disillusionment after waiting for Chuck D's call to arms at her first Public Enemy concert only to hear that he wanted "all the sisters in the house -- to scream!" "What?" she says. "You just want the women to scream? What kind of revolution is that?"
De León incorporates several of her earlier poems into the piece, including one outlining what would be a real revolution in rap: "If women ran hip-hop, the only folks dancing in cages would be dogs and cats from the local animal shelter, excited about getting adopted by pet lovers in the crowd." She ends the latter piece happily voguing and shimmying, doing the cabbage patch and the running man to "Ladies First." But when Jah Rule's "Bitch Better Have My Money" butts in, she stops in mid-backspin as if she's been slapped to the floor. "Hip-hop is a sacred art!" she protests. "There are thieves in the temple!"
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