Intersectional Theatre: Presenting a Bilingual Prince Hamlet

Our residency with Why Not Theatre spotlights their groundbreaking approach 
Dawn Jani Birley shares the story of her career and her unique perspective on the world of theatre.
Photo by Taylor Barrett

Ahead of this Friday’s performance of Prince Hamlet, Why Not Theatre joined Carolina Performing Arts for a week-long residency. This included an in-depth discussion with actor and American Sign Language (ASL) translator Dawn Jani Birley about the company’s intersectional approach to William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.

Throughout the conversation with CPA and PlayMakers Repertory Company staff, Birley highlighted her conscious rebellion against the idea that mere inclusion should serve as a true end goal. For Birley, inclusion feels too limited, as it fails to encompass the full range of her capabilities. By contrast, an intersectional approach allows Birley and the rest of the company to explore the multiple dimensions of Shakespeare’s characters through new lenses of language, gender and ethnicity. In doing so, Why Not Theatre challenges traditional notions of who exactly gets to tell these stories. 

“I want to use my platform as an artist to break down the systemic barriers and open new avenues in the theatre. I hope work like this can be a part of that.” 

Dawn Jani Birley

Director Ravi Jain’s retelling shows us the world through the eyes of Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend, as portrayed by Birley. Within this framework, we come to understand that Horatio’s deafness is just one of many aspects that inform his perception of that world. Combining English and ASL, the production offers a bold reimagining aimed at hearing and Deaf audiences alike.

This week’s residency also included a public pre-performance discussion with director Vivienne Benesch and actor Tia James of PlayMakers Repertory Company, which will present its own take on the Bard’s famous play in January 2023. The primary topic of discussion stemmed from a common thread: Both productions will feature a woman in the lead role. Cast members spoke about these challenges and opportunities with refreshing candor, offering a rare inside look at the performances to come.

Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet will be presented at Memorial Hall this Friday, October 7. The PlayMakers Repertory Company’s performance of Hamlet will run from January 25 through February 12. CPA audiences can save 20% with promo code DENMARK

Hip Hop South Festival Q&A with Christopher Massenburg

Hip Hop South Festival co-curator and CPA staff member Christopher Massenburg (a.k.a. Dasan Ahanu) shares the scholarship and inspiration behind this new event — and what audiences can expect.
Photo of Hip Hop South Festival co-curators Dr. Regina Bradley and Chris Massenburg (Dasan Ahanu)
Dr. Regina Bradley and Christopher Massenburg. Photo credit: Rofhiwa Book Cafe
What inspired you to partner with Dr. Regina Bradley on the Hip Hop South Festival? 

Regina and I met while we were both Fellows at Harvard University’s Hip Hop Archive and Research Institute. Regina is a brilliant Southern hip hop scholar. When I suggested the idea of the festival, I knew I wanted to work with Regina. We’ve had so many great conversations about the culture and the South. I knew she would have the perfect perspective on the festival. 

How would you describe your co-curation process? How does your Fellowship at Harvard — and your continued scholarship at UNC-Chapel Hill and elsewhere — inform it? 

The great thing about working with Regina is that we are friends. Talking about the festival is really us dreaming about a dope Southern hip hop experience that we would want to enjoy. The curation is experience first. Then we think about the logistics that can provide that experience.  

We are both products of the culture. We grew up in it and it is a part of how we see the world, how we move. We both seek to bring the South, the Black South, the Hip Hop South into our work whenever we can. It is our experience with that ongoing integration in spaces like our fellowship, our teaching, our writing, and our participation in various projects that we brought to the curation of the festival. 

How did you determine which artists to feature? What makes their work particularly noteworthy or exemplary of Southern hip hop culture? 

We started with a large list of possibilities. We wanted to make sure there was a range of artists on that list. The South isn’t a monolith. The same is true for hip hop in the South. The artists are different and distinct.  

The other thing to consider is geography. There is a Southern aesthetic, but that aesthetic also varies from area to area. What is happening musically in Memphis is different from Atlanta, New Orleans and North Carolina. It makes for a really beautiful puzzle to work with. Of course, we also wanted to make sure North Carolina was represented in this festival.  

How do the festival artists and academics tie to CPA’s Southern Futures initiative? 

Southern Futures aims to imagine a more just and inclusive vision of the American South. I believe that to do so it is imperative to consider the role of hip hop in the story of the South. Hip hop is a revolutionary culture that pushes back at rigid conventions. It offers folks an outlet to speak about the material conditions impacting their life. It also allows for a celebration of their South own their terms.  

Southern Futures’ mission is to examine the past of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and greater community; and imagine the future, focusing on humble listening and community engagement, bringing storytelling and art to the foreground. Storytelling is a big part of Southern hip hop music. There are rich and beautiful stories to be told and Southern rap artists tell them in compelling fashion. 

Southern hip hop scholarship is still making sure the academy knows the South got something to say. It was critical to hold space within the festival for Southern scholars to be able to connect and network. Fighting for room within the academy for your scholarship can feel daunting, but knowing that you are part of a cadre of scholars pushing the Hip Hop South to the forefront can be encouraging and affirming. We wanted folks to be able to know what work was being done, share experiences and resources, and build new relationships. An initiative like Southern Futures provides an opportunity to center Southern art and scholarship. 

How would you describe Southern hip hop culture to those who may be less familiar with it? What makes it distinctly different from the broader hip hop culture and canon? 

I can’t describe Southern hip hop to someone. I can let them know that it is its own flavor of wonderful. I can assure them that they need to experience it. Commercial representation doesn’t do it justice. The festival is a chance for people to really immerse themselves in the culture in a Southern way. Like many things in the South, you have a better understanding when you can experience in context and it its moment. So folks just need to come on down and have some fun with us.  

What can audiences expect to see and hear during the festival? 

What audiences can expect to see and hear is joy. Throughout the festival there will be excitement, anticipation and joy. There is joy when we gather. There is joy when we celebrate. When we can get together in a space held for us we can be us openly. That is joy.  

So folks should come ready to have a ball, hang out with good folks, and experience some Southern joy. 

What do you hope audiences will take away from the Hip Hop South Festival experience? 

I want folks to have enjoyed it so much they can’t wait to see what we do next. I want folks to know that this event is exactly what is needed and is a great addition to the music landscape in North Carolina, in the South.  

Get ready for the Hip Hop South Festival with Chris’ playlist: Southern Hip Hop Primer Playlist

Announcing the Hip Hop South Festival at Carolina Performing Arts

Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is excited to announce the Hip Hop South Festival, a two-day event from April 22–23, 2022 that celebrates the impact of hip hop across the South. Co-curated by Harvard Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellows Christopher Massenburg (also known as Dasan Ahanu) and Regina Bradley, the festival will feature headlining performances by hip hop heavyweights and local artists, as well as academic gatherings, late-night beat and dance battles, visual art and more. 

The Hip Hop South Festival is part of CPA’s Southern Futures initiative, which features arts experiences co-created with local communities and focuses on racial equity, social justice and the American South. As a co-curator and CPA staff member, Christopher Massenburg looks forward to exploring hip hop culture with audiences.  

“The Hip Hop South Festival creates space for deeper exploration and appreciation of hip hop’s geographical influence by focusing on the development and impact of the culture across the South.”  

HIP HOP South festival co-curator christopher massenburg

The festival kicks off Friday, April 22 with a main show at Cat’s Cradle, featuring North Carolina favorites Carolina Waves, Shirlette Ammons, and Rapsody — followed by Turn It Loose, Volume 3 — a late-night B-boy jam at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, hosted by the Raleigh Rockers, and featuring breakdancing demonstrations and competitions with dance crews from across the region.  

The excitement continues Saturday, April 23 with a main show at Memorial Hall, featuring some of the South’s finest hip hop artists — Radio Rehab, Sa-Roc, and Big Boi — followed by a late-night beat battle at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, hosted by The Underground Collective, and featuring local luminaries The Soul Council, who will provide beat demonstrations and judging.  

Festivalgoers will also enjoy a visual arts experience throughout the two days. “Dirty South Scribes, an exhibit by Regina Bradley at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, honors the groundbreaking writers who spotlight Southern rap’s significance.  

See the full festival schedule.

Tickets are on sale now and include single-day and two-day pass options; a limited number of UNC-Chapel Hill student tickets are available. 

Learn more about what to expect when you visit our venues — including ticketing, parking, and health and safety protocols — in our Event FAQ

About Carolina Performing Arts 

The mission of Carolina Performing Arts is to spark curiosity, inspiring all members of its community to discover and more fully engage with the world. The 21/22 season programming at Carolina Performing Arts features Southern Futures at Carolina Performing Arts, designed to facilitate co-creative arts experiences that produce diverse and nuanced narratives about racial equity, social justice, and the American South and create spaces for inclusive dialogue and learning. 

Subscribe to Our Email List

Sign Up