“A Secular Church:” Will Power and the Storytellers of Hip-Hop Theatre

Will Power is a lyrical innovator and early pioneer of hip-hop theatre who came to playwriting from an early love of storytelling. "I always enjoyed a good story as a kid,” Power says. “Hearing some great storytellers in my community, what you can learn from it and what you can pass on...and the way you can engage people and spark places or commonalities where other people can engage outside of themselves."

Born William Wylie, “Will Power” is the emcee name Power received in the 1980s. Since his stage debut at 10 years old for a children's theatre company in California, Power has revered the potential of storytelling and community associated with theatre. In an interview with DC Metro Theater Arts, Power said, "Theatre to me is like a secular church. Not to get all corny, but we are like secular preachers. That's kind of how I look at it, and that's what's inspired me in the community."

Power’s first solo show, The Gathering, premiered in 1999 and toured through 2002. This production was an important early marker in the formation of hip-hop theatre as a genre. Described by Power as "a hip-hop journey to the meeting places of Black men," The Gathering explores the lives of five Black men in a neighborhood from the barbershop to the corner. The Gathering stands as an experimental precursor to Flow, exploring the use of verse outside of rap and music's standard conventions. While Power writes explicitly in rhyme, the rhythm and use of language in his plays push against the boundaries of expectation and classic hip-hop. Music accompanies rather than rules language, allowing Power's delicate characterization to shine through in the character's vocal patterns and cadence.

Power’s next piece, Flow, showcases his masterful synergy of music, rap, and stories, and still stands as a pillar of the hip-hop theatre genre. Reflective of Power's childhood experience as a young emcee in San Francisco's Fillmore District, Flow is a love letter to a neighborhood, community, and the diverse storytellers that inhabit it. Power toured the piece from 2002-2004, including a run at Studio Theatre.

Alongside these solo shows, Power's playwriting repertoire includes musicals and straight plays, many referencing cultural or historical periods or adaptations from classical texts. One of his most recent plays, Seize the King, is a five-person reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Richard III, which premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 2018. Similarly, his 2005 musical The Seven is a modernized adaption of Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus from 467 BCE. The Seven merges Power's trademark combination of rhyme and hip-hop with multiple styles of music, soul, funk, and R&B. The musical is set in a modern urban setting contemporizing the ancient Greek themes of war and family to modern themes of poverty and race in America.

Power has influenced theatremakers across the US and internationally; his plays have been performed in more than 70 US cities and globally in venues spanning Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Additionally, Power has given lectures, taught community workshops, and collaborated with artists in South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan as a guest of the US State Department. He is likewise passionate about teaching, having previously held positions at City College of New York, Princeton University, and University of Massachusetts (Amherst). He now works as an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Occidental College teaching interdisciplinary classes including one on the Black Arts Movement and another called, “Freak the Classics,” which looks at a Shakespeare play and its modern adaptations.

Outside of theatre, Power was part of the hip-hop group Midnight Voices in the 1990s, touching on social and political issues facing Black youth within their music. As the child of political activists and growing up in a historically Black neighborhood that was home to the Black Panthers, Power's social justice-oriented themes are prevalent throughout his work. On hip-hop itself, Power discussed hope for its future in an interview with Bill Moyers: "hip-hop has great potential to really unite people in ways that other kinds of genres don't…that's the potential using that tool as education, but also using that tool to bring people together."

—Jada Boggs