War on the Streets

New Hip-Hop Theatrical Production Confronts Police Brutality

“Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of” is raw and unflinching as it portrays police violence in an urbanscape. Photo Brandon Johnston

Mainstream hip-hop isn’t generally known for moving its listeners to tears, but with just a little digging into the underground, you’ll find a plethora of raw material that isn’t afraid to speak the harsh truth.

Hip-hop culture intersects with the world of theatre in Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of, written by Montreal actor, poet and Concordia alumnus Omari Newton, and put on by Montreal’s own Black Theatre Workshop.

Newton has acted in such television shows as the American comedy Blue Mountain State and currently has a role on the Canadian sci-fi series Continuum, based in Vancouver. Sal Capone is his playwriting debut, but he’s no stranger to the written word.

Once upon a time, Newton was also the MC of the Montreal hip-hop/jazz ensemble Kobayashi, and he continues to write slam poetry.

“I’ve always been a writer,” Newton said over the phone from Vancouver, where he now lives.

Newton’s play follows the story of members of a hip-hop group, Sal Capone, whose worlds are shattered when their DJ is fatally shot by police.

The storyline was inspired by a true story that unfolded right here in the City of Churches—the tragic tale of Fredy Villanueva, an 18-year old Montreal North resident who was killed by the SPVM in 2008.

According to Newton, Villanueva’s tragedy was the biggest influence for the play, but Sal Capone is not just a simple retelling of Villanueva’s death.

“I was just upset,” said Newton. “This was a kid of colour from my hometown.”

Newton’s close friend and acclaimed theatre director Diane Roberts pushed him to channel his grief and frustration through writing Sal Capone, and she is now directing the play.

In addition to its hip-hop core and police brutality themes, Sal Capone addresses gender equality, homophobia and racism. The recently proposed Charter of Quebec Values even gets a satirical shout-out, as does Premier Pauline Marois.

The play manages to incorporate spoken word and rap performances, and opens the show with a performance from the Sal Capone trio. The set consists of an urban, graffiti-covered cityscape, fitting for the environment envisioned by Newton.

The production also has a multimedia component, using numerous audio and video clips to carry the story along and shake up the conventions of traditional theatre.

The State of Hip-Hop

Canadian actors Tristan D. Lalla and Kim Villigante portray Freddy and Jewel respectively, the rappers of the hip-hop group Sal Capone. Letitia Brookes, a graduate from Concordia’s theatre program, plays Freddy’s younger sister Naomi and has a short cameo as the ill-fated DJ of Sal Capone.

When comparing the trio to the hip-hop artistes of today, Newton said that the group represents the style of “backpacker rap,” and lists current rap stars Joey Bada$$ and Lupe Fiasco as comparisons.

Newton mentioned old school hip-hop artists such as Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan as some of his hip-hop idols growing up. But for research for his play, he paid close attention to the styles of contemporary rap artists, citing superstars Drake, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar as influences.

Despite the various violent connotations associated with hip-hop, Newton only cites hip-hop in its materialistic and industrial form as a negative influence.

“I don’t blame hip-hop for its ills,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s hip-hop, the art form, […] I think it’s hip-hop the industry that’s destructive.”

Newton credited Lamar for reviving his interest in modern hip-hop culture. He admitted he was “bored” with the scene until he heard the Compton native’s jaw-dropping verse in Big Sean’s song “Control” earlier this year, which has caught fire in the rap scene for its unstoppable flow and for calling out of some of today’s biggest rappers.

“I actually feel encouraged about the [state of] hip-hop culture,” Newton said.

Newton admitted that audiences’ responses to Sal Capone will likely depend on their level of knowledge of hip-hop culture and trivia, and a number of references to the scene are things only a hip-hop head would know, such as hip-hop video website Worldstarhiphop.com and the latest rap feuds.

But insider allusions aside, Newton is sure the relatable themes and authenticity of the production will keep even the least-hip-hop-savvy show-goer engaged.

When asked about the unconventional title of his production, Newton made reference to the “really grandiose titles” of Shakespearean and Greek tragedies. Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of is his way of building up the acclaim of the Canadian MC who, save for a few examples, do not garner as much attention or respect as an American rapper.

“This is really just my ‘F-U’ to the under-representation of MCs in Canada,” he said.

While this may be Newton’s first venture into playwriting, it won’t be his last.

“I definitely want to write more,” he said.

Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of // Oct. 23 to Nov. 10 // the MAI Centre (3680 Jeanne-Mance St.) // 8 p.m., Sunday matinees 3 p.m. // $20 students, $25 regular // Facebook event