The ethereal black man floats over to the trembling white man, who has heard the advance of the Confederate Army and perhaps smells smoke from distant rifle fire.
You got a red badge? Put it on!
You want to fight, boy? Lets get it on!
You been a soldier since you were born
Another bloody body fallin in the stalks of corn.
The black man glides away from his pale alter ego, as the chugga-chugga beats of the onstage DJ blend with the martial booming of a cannon.
Yes, its the hip-hop version of The Red Badge of Courage, where Stephen Crane meets street refrains.
Childrens Theatre of Charlotte opens Eric Schmiedls stage adaptation of the novel this weekend at ImaginOn, with music by Reemycks and lyrics by David McCullough. The main Union soldiers are white, as in the novel: new recruit Henry (Chaz Pofahl), more experienced Jim (Berry Newkirk) and others who come and go (all played by Mark Sutton).
Quill, a fluent local rapper, plays a new character Voice, Henrys subconscious and has cameos as other real soldiers. DJ Flemingo literally looks down on the proceedings from a high stage perch, guiding the action with sound effects, scratches and beats.
Not one iota of this vision was in Sidney Hortons mind when Childrens Theatre asked him to direct the show.
I said, That book I read in high school, about a guy who ran and fought and fought? Ummm OK, says CTCs education community coordinator. But when I heard the music and the hip-hop, it fit.
The play rolls past in 75 intense minutes, without intermission. Horton will create battles with lighting and aural effects; speakers around the theater will give audiences the feeling theyre in a Union-Confederate crossfire, though we never see any rebels.
The script didnt specify casting, so Horton filled roles in a way that joined two eras. White soldiers represent the century where a war determined the freedom of African-Americans; black performers supply music from the century where people of color dominate their art.
The book is told from an omniscient point of view, says Quill. Here we get into Henrys head; Im kind of like the devils advocate for Henry. When hes scared, I keep asking if hell run. Once he does run, I provide a guilt trip.
Hip-hop music can be aggressive and personifies conflict well, so it fits Red Badge. I love the poetic dynamics of the lyrics. There were small flow problems I had to fix, but the person who wrote these words knew his business.
Sutton, CTCs associate artistic director, saw Quill and Flemingo in Rhyme Deferred, a hip-hop musical On Q did last year, and suggested they meet Horton. Flemingo soon felt comfortable with his role, except for that lofty perch. (He dislikes heights.)
Ive added some effects, like the sound representation of fog, he says of his CTC debut, which takes place in the middle of his very different gigs for the CIAA. At the end, Ive added a deep male choir and military drumbeats.
Once the turntables get set up, Ill really be scratching and DJ-ing. Were telling this story for younger people, in a way theyll want to hear it. The music and dialogue go together surprisingly well.
No one on the creative team had to draw parallels between Henrys time and ours, when 19-year-olds question the value of Army service in Iraq and Afghanistan. More fundamentally, Red Badge deals with questions some 19-year-olds have to ask themselves in America, too: When should I run, and when must I stand? Whats worth fighting and perhaps even dying for?
Once Henry stands and fights, he turns into a war devil, says Horton. Then he looks around and asks, Why are we doing this? For that little piece of land? That fence?
The play answers no questions for you. Youll have to answer those for yourselves.