I’m a gangsta rap man. I’ll take Jay-Z or Notorious B.I.G. or new guys like Clipse over “socially conscious” rappers like Kanye West or Common or Mos Def. I know it’s a lame designation, and most hip-hop artists have learned to dread the “socially conscious” label, even though it’s a proud strain that goes back from Public Enemy to “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash—but for me, the more gangsta the better.
I’ll take gangsta rap over socially conscious rap for the same reasons I’ll take Heller over Vonnegut or Mailer over Baldwin. I’d rather hear about the ills of society reflected in an entertaining way than listen to somebody preach about those ills. I don’t like art with a “message” that’s supposed to be “good” for me. I like an entertaining story well told, even if it’s profane, socially irresponsible, and violent. And don’t even ask me about my blatantly sexist prejudice against female rappers.
So you can imagine what I was thinking going into Low: Meditations: A Trilogy Part I, a one-act, one-woman play at the Pillsbury House Theater, billed as “an exploration of the fear, stigma, and mythology surrounding mental illness” performed and written by a woman actually named Rha Goddess, an “artist/activist” who wrote the play in her trademark “flowetry” style. Yuck, right? Going in the door, I thought I was going to gag through an evening of well-meaning, socially conscious garbage.
Turns out this play is the most gripping seventy minutes of theater I can ever remember seeing. Watching Ms. Goddess portray Lowquesha (a clever turn on a name even a white guy like me recognizes as a black girl’s name), a girl from around the block who descends into the depths of madness, paranoia, and rage, was funny, moving, and ultimately harrowing. Goddess’s performance is as rich and deep and real as anything you would see on The Wire. As a monologue, it’s Spalding Grey meets Ol’ Dirty Bastard. You need to see this play.
Low is more of a rap concert than a one-act—for seventy minutes, it’s just Lowquesha on a small white stage, with one white chair as a prop, just her voice over some sound and lighting effects. All she needs is one mike, basically. In jeans and a blue hoodie, Goddess portrays Lowquesha and all the characters in her life, from her sister and her mother to her mother’s boyfriends to the psychiatrist at school to the people she waits on at Starbucks. Her voices, inside and outside of her head, her movements and gestures, are all emoted and controlled with a masterful honesty. You can’t take your eyes off her. She seems to be channeling Low and her people, and then, several times throughout, all of a sudden she’ll start spitting full-on hip-hop rhymes in character. As Low says, she’s “ill to the nth degree,” in ways hip-hop hasn’t really anticipated.
Goddess takes you on a journey from a nine-year-old girl who’s “acting out,” to a teenaged cutter getting asked by her school counselor if she ever feels “sad or confused,” to a young woman on several competing psychotropic prescriptions who’s been kicked to the street by her mom and strapped down in the county hospital. After watching this woman get chewed up and spit out by a caffeine-addled, go-go-go society for more than an hour, she starts preaching a little bit, but it feels organic: now she’s just a crazy bitch on a street corner trying to get someone to listen to her. But while most crazy people in the real world are marginalized, on the periphery of whatever social consciousness people can muster while running errands or going to lunch, Goddess’s Lowquesha puts a human face on the crazy panhandler who hassles you on your way out of Block E. When Lowquesha rants about people popping Ritalin and Prozac like candy, about how mental illness has become a plague—when she warns, “If your ass is feeling blue, look out!” because a couple of down days can get you thrown in a mental ward if you’re the wrong color or class—well, she’s earned a little preaching.
See this play.
Did that sound preachy?