Lesson #3: Hip Hop Theatre

This is the third lesson in the SING THE HEART OF THE MAGIC: A Jennifer L. Nelson Story teaching guide. Click here for more information.


Student Outcomes

  • Students will be able to identify when the term “hip hop theatre” emerged and give an overview of what it means.
  • Students will be able to identify at least three prominent theatre-makers who have created works considered to be “hip hop theatre.”
  • Students will compare the elements inherent in hip hop theatre to those inherent theatre of the oppressed.


“The term “hip-hop theatre” emerged in the early 1990s from Jonzi D, a London-based dancer and emcee. He sought to describe a performance style that encompassed a fusion of hip-hop dance and theatre. Over the 1990s, this definition expanded to include theater works that incorporate graffiti, DJ'ing, breakdancing, emceeing, beatboxing, and/or rap. Will Power described hip-hop theatre as "theatre artists exploring their relationship to hip-hop, focusing on content, form, or content and form." Although the genre was first named overseas, American artists such as Will Power, Psalmayene 24, and Kamilah Forbes actively shaped and created the form through their work in the United States.

In the summer of 2000, the first two hip-hop theatre festivals were founded: In Washington, DC Jennifer Nelson, then the Artistic Director of the African Continuum Theatre, produced the Hip-Hop Theater Fest at the Kennedy Center, bringing together audience members new to hip-hop and audience members familiar with hip-hop and new to The Kennedy Center. Later the same year, playwright/director Danny Hoch and playwright/director Kamilah Forbes co-founded the New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival (now known as HiARTS). In 2002, artist Rickerby Hinds produced Califest in Riverside, California. These festivals came to be year-round events, drawing artists from across genres and sparking discussions of form and its possibilities.”-Studio Theatre website


GRAFFITTI                            DJ’ING           RAPPING                  SPINNING

Focus Questions

 (Grades 6-12)

1.    Watch this video about hip-hop. Based on the video, what is hip-hop?

(Grades 9-12)

2.    Jennifer L. Nelson produced one of the first Hip-Hop Theater Festivals in the United States in 2000 when she produced one for the Kennedy Center. What do you think are some of the elements of the genre Hip-Hop Theatre that may be different than elements of Theatre of the Oppressed? What are some ways they may be similar?

3.    Hip-hop theater is a fusion of theater and all or some of the six elements of hip-hop. Reflect on the ways that hip-hop theater has manifested in pop culture even if it is not called hip-hop theater.

4.    In this video, Toni Blackman talks about the cypher in hip-hop. How is the concept of the cypher similar to the art of improvisation?

Main Lesson Activity #1

Materials: Paper, pencil and computer to watch videos

 Estimated Time: 45 minutes to 2 hours (Suggestion: Assign essay during class, assign rap for homework, or vice versa)

 (Have students work in pairs or teams when giving them the following directions)

1.    “Why is hip-hop not part of the natural curriculum for performing arts?” Watch this Ted talk with Jonzi D and write a coherent essay response to this igniting question. Cite at least three sources to support your position.

Main Lesson Activity #2

2.    After writing your essay, use the central thesis of your essay to construct a 10-50 line hip-hop rap response. You will be expected to present your rap. Watch this video to get tips on delivery.

Facilitation Guide for Teacher:

1.    Bring students together in a common area where all students can watch the documentary Sing the Heart of Magic in a common area, whether virtually or in-person.

 2.    Focusing Student Attention: Ask students about their favorite hip hop artists.

3.    Introductory and Developmental Conversation: Ask the students if they knew that the musical Hamilton was a form of hip-hop theatre. Explain to them what hip-hop theatre is. Let them know that Jennifer L. Nelson produced one of the first hip hop theatre festivals in the country.

4.    Content-Based Video: Watch some of the recommended videos together featuring Toni Blackman and Jonzi D.

5.    Closing assessment Activity: Have students share their videos and allow for discussion and processing. What are the differences between hip-hop music on its own and hip-hop theatre as an art form?