If hip-hop is fun to watch—and it is—it's also tough to assign a place in the books. Some will tell you that “Rapper's Delight,” a Sugarhill Gang single from 1979, marks the genre's beginning. Others say James Brown's nimble moves and explosive wails had a hand in fanning the flames. Another group credits the watershed to Earl Tucker, who trotted out a funny new float- and-slide-based dance style at New York's Cotton Club in the mid-1920s.
History can go all of 'em about 24 centuries better, I think. Like the above, the theater heavies from ancient Greece found their bread and butter in the marriage of rhyme, movement and music. “An Athenian audience,” wrote New York magazine theater critic Jeremy McCarter, “would have been mightily confused by [a] woman with two turntables and a microphone but not by a chorus reciting verses over a beat.” If you go to La Jolla Playhouse's season-closing The Seven, you'll see what McCarter meant. This show indeed features a woman with two turntables and a microphone—but amid its cleanly defined divisions of labor, it's as savvy and as thoughtful a program as they come.
Will Power's story is a rework of Aeschylus' The Seven Against Thebes, written in 467 B.C. as the story of Polynices and Eteocles, brothers who agree to rule Thebes in alternate years after the fall of Oedipus, their dad. Eteocles (San Diego State University grad Benton Greene) would take the first shot, but the vagaries of politics would swell his circle of insiders and his ego, leaving Polynices (Jamyl Dobson) and six recruits to right the wrongs. Eteocles would quash the rebellion—and the curse Oedipus (Edwin Lee Gibson) had earlier placed on his sons was fulfilled. Both brothers died in the battle, and quiet Thebes was suddenly struggling to shore up its own bloody tide.
The program says the show was developed and directed by Jo Bonney—and it's the “development” part for which she deserves credit. This is an exceedingly tech-heavy show, with a sea of bells and whistles coloring the breezy poetry and the cast's obvious athleticism, but Bonney judiciously weaves the elements into a fluid series of stage pictures. Power's so-called schoolyard dialogue thus stands out against the far more complicated dance and light routines. Bonney's grown this balancing act over a great deal of time, and her attention to detail has paid off.
The DJ narrator (Chinasa Ogbuagu) calls the defeat an “ass-whuppin'”; a lot of Power's language takes the same tone, as when the rebels accuse Eteocles of “tryin' to hold back and hide classified information.” Contrast that with the chilling “It is the curse of your father that bears fruit in you”—you see Power's talent for a turn of phrase in whatever circumstance. In truth, some of his music is bombastic and less artistic than his lyrics, and there's something simplistic about a pimped-out Oedipus and the extraneous references to Social Security, the CIA and free Cadillacs for every man, woman and child.
But note the deliberateness with which Power and Bonney introduce the rebels. Those passages are preceded by a big fat back-story, one that fuels the eye and ear as surely as the show's technical side. The historians can argue all they want over hip-hop's timeline; it's irrelevant amid the genre's virtues as a successor to the theater's origins. Great show. This review is based on the preview performance of Feb. 16. The Seven runs through March 16 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. $34-$60. 858-550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org.