Works in Progress - Winter 2016

The Rap’s the Thing

Translating Shakespeare into the language of hip hop

By Chloe Taft | December 7, 2015
The Q Brothers’ Shakespeare adaptation The Bomb-itty of Errors (Candice Albach)
The Q Brothers’ Shakespeare adaptation The Bomb-itty of Errors (Candice Albach)


To translate Shakespeare into a hip-hop performance, as two Chicago-based brothers do, is “more than just a happy accident,” says Gregory Qaiyum, who goes by GQ. “Shakespeare was a rapper. He was a master storyteller who used poetry and musical language to tell his stories. It is no different with rappers today.”

GQ and his brother JQ (Jeffrey Qaiyum) are at work on their fourth Shakespeare production, I <3 Juliet, which follows Othello: The Remix, Funk It Up About Nothin’, and The Bomb-itty of Errors. The Q Brothers’ hip-hop adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic love story will premiere in Chicago in 2017. To highlight the play’s social juxtapositions, they plan to hire seasoned Shakespeare actors for the adult roles while casting teenagers “with rap in their blood and bones but no experience acting” as the younger characters, GQ says. The Capulets and the Montagues will represent diverse parts of Chicagoland, from the affluent north suburbs to distressed neighborhoods on the city’s South Side.

One goal is to take the young cast members, some of whom have never left Chicago, to London to perform for a weekend at the Globe Theatre. Just as important, GQ says, will be the opportunity to perform the play in Chicago parks during the summer, particularly in neighborhoods where residents do not have access to the theater.

The play’s progress—from auditions to opening—will be captured in a documentary film. “We can’t ever really describe our process, but we can show it,” GQ says.

Andrew Schwertfeger, the film’s producer and director, approached the charismatic Q Brothers after attending one of their productions in Chicago. “I want to try to capture the energy they bring to their live performances to film, which will be a challenge creatively,” he says.

In August, Schwertfeger began filming the acting workshops the brothers regularly conduct with prisoners and underprivileged youth. The film will be released in 2018. Below is an excerpt from the play’s famous balcony scene.

‘Here comes the sun’ to kill the moon
He turns sick and pale cuz he has to make room
And he doesn’t stand a chance when she’s singin’ her tune
Let him swoon, jealous goon, let envy be his tomb
The moon wears green, only an idiot would wear it
Take it off! Don’t layer it
She’s my lady—my sugar dumpling
And I want all she got, I don’t want only one thing …

But soft—look how the light breaks through
My heart is beatin’ like an earthquake
I know it sets in the west when it’s done, but
This is the east. Juliet is the sun!

Ay me! … Wherefore art thou? Your key in the ignition
At the pole position, watch my heart start now
Forget what you are, refuse your name
And if you swear you love me then I’ll do the same
No longer Montague. No longer Capulet
Check it out, our conception could be immaculate
And for real, what’s in a name?
A rose by any other would smell the same

And here is Act I, Scene II of the Q Brothers’ in-progress play, where “the Capulets are a WASPish New England family and Parry is a schmoozy older guy trying to sneeze in on Juliet through her dad.”

Parry sit…  Scotch and water?

Listen I know she’s really young but I really like your daughter.

You ever been to Thailand?  You need to get lucky.
You could marry my Juliet but you’d have to move to Kentucky.

I know she’s only 13 and I’m going on 30.

Louisville’s no Bangkok but I’d visit for the Derby.
I’m sorry Parry you don’t quite yet have my approval.
Come to think of down there it’s called Lewville.
I’m having a soiree tonight.  Come! Pop a bottle.
We’ll be eating pad thai off of nude super models.
You need to see the world a little Parry, don’t you think?
Before you take my Juliet and have to walk the plank.

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