The seed for the show that would become Will Power’s breakout hit Flow was, appropriately enough, percussive. Walking home through Harlem, Power had a vision that was both visual and aural: “I started seeing these moving pictures in my mind,” he writes. “I could see these storytellers in Africa. …Their village was under siege by invaders, and these storytellers were attempting to tell everyone in their village all the community stories before the community ceased to exist. …And in the middle of the chaos were these storytellers telling stories. When they moved, they would say, ‘Zuu!’ And when an invader was approaching, they’d beat on drums to create a rhythmic pattern of warning. It sounded kind of like ‘beede-kaka, beede-kaka.’”
From this urgent and specific vision of history, Power crafted a play about the seven storytellers chosen to tell the stories of The Neighborhood in their own time of chaos. Drawing on the West African tradition of the griot—a poet/musician/historian figure, a community’s living archive and social glue—Power creates a range of characters from a young freestyle queen to friendly corner drunk to cashier and self-taught minister. The tales themselves are as likely to be ridiculous (one follows an intrepid cockroach-turned-revolutionary) as they are to be thought-provoking or painful and unsentimental.
All the stories have real medicine in them, yoking the past to an uncertain present. As their teacher, Ole’ Cheesy, explains to Will and the other fledgling storytellers he trains up, “Once there was a time/When Griots—we did more than just rhyme/Zuu/We were tellin' the truth/Passin' knowledge along.” Ole’ Cheesy prods his students to take their place as a Griot crew once again, telling what they know and finding new tellers to remake the stories in their own flow.
Will Power toured Flow in 2003-2004 (including a run at Studio Theatre), performing the piece with DJ Reborn spinning and scratching alongside him. The play is considered a classic of hip-hop theatre, one of the first hip-hop plays to be written in rhymed verse, and the first to create what scholar Kim Euell calls, “the language of the drumbeat.”
For this season’s production at Studio, Psalmayene 24 has translated the play into digital form, working with choreographer Tony Thomas and composer DJ Nick tha 1da. Inspired by the visual language of hip-hop videos, the trio have created various styles for the play’s parables of independence and interdependence.
Power’s fusion of music, rhythm, poetry, and movement evokes the public life of The Neighborhood, its sounds and rhythms, its memories and promises. Today, DC’s street life is reawakening in the shadow of this year’s many losses, a rise that blends sorrow and joy. Power’s words and observations—as well as his love for the sounds of a living street scene and the ability of stories to bind us together and help us envision the world as it could be—make for a powerful bridge back to public life.