From left: Mark Sutton, Chaz Pofahl and Mason “Quill” Parker in a hip hop stage adaptation of author Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel “Red Badge of Courage” (Photo: Donna Bise)
A 118-year-old literary masterpiece of Civil War fiction, told as a hip hop story? Really?
Yes. “The Red Badge of Courage” — presented by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte at ImaginOn’s Wells Fargo Playhouse through March 16 — takes an unlikely marriage of art forms and makes them resonate. Eric Schmiedl’s adaption for the stage flourishes because he uses hip hop to accentuate the story’s timeless themes rather than overshadow them.
Hip hop’s not a gimmick here. It tells the story in a powerful way because it’s so well performed, and it’s a better fit for the subject than some might think. Although the Civil War isn’t generally associated with African Americans, many historical accounts say that by the end of the war, African Americans made up roughly 10 percent of the Union army and that 186,097 soldiers served overall.
Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel about a soldier’s inner struggle bulges with battles of conscience: loyalty vs. self-preservation. The safety of youth vs. maturity and responsibility. Expectations vs. reality. So when Union Pvt. Henry Fleming (competently portrayed by Chaz Pofahl) quickly finds that his zeal for whooping “the Rebs” was dangerously misplaced as the bombs, bullets and carnage begin to explode, his alter ego reminds him of life’s and war’s complications.
Local rapper Mason (Quill) Parker, the Voice and the only African American in the four-man cast, is the hip hop component. He alternately challenges, haunts, teases, mocks Henry during moments of personal conflict and crisis:
Over 100,000 soldiers and you — and everybody’s just waiting.
You ain’t without injury for the pain of knowing your perjury.
Where your red badge, Henry?
Henry is the main character, but in this production the Voice is the show. The street-tough Quill is relentless as he hounds the soldier all over the stage — occasionally venturing into the audience to make his appeals up close and personal.
The music (by Reemycks) is a fitting complement for the Voice’s musings. The score is powerful — particularly during the battle scene — although the Voice is rendered somewhat inaudible during one “shooting.” (DJ Flemingo is billed as the beat master for the play, but at this Saturday matinee the job was ably handled by director Sidney Horton.)
Henry’s two war buddies are studies in contrast: the hardened, distrustful Jim (Berry Newkirk) and the effusive, naive Wilson (Mark Sutton), who savors his first combat with bug-eyed glee. Though Henry’s enthusiasm is no match for Wilson’s, his thirst for action grows — at least until the realities of war are right before his eyes.
It’s not long before he faces an unwinnable choice: fight or flee. Henry’s inner agony and resulting dialogue within, the latter smartly created by David McCullough, become the thrust of the one-hour production. The actors double in minor roles, helping a war play come off seamlessly in a small venue.
There’s no pat ending for our protagonist, forever destined to be dogged by doubt. What are soldiers fighting for — “that fence over there?” What is worth dying for? What is worth killing for?
In wartime or peacetime, whether it’s a classic book or an unconventional 21st-century play, those are enduring questions for children and adults.