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Roots' rapper takes his cause to the theater

For rapper Dice Raw of The Roots, the stage is the perfect place to discuss the mass incarceration of African-American males

Dice Raw's play "The Last Jimmy," based on his CD "Jimmy's Back," is a critique of the for-profit prisons in this country.
Dice Raw's play "The Last Jimmy," based on his CD "Jimmy's Back," is a critique of the for-profit prisons in this country.Read more

Update: Dice Raw was misidentified as The Roots' front man in yesterday's edition. Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter is the band's lead rapper.

AS RAPPER Dice Raw sees it, the for-profit incarceration industry is as much an enemy of the African-American community as poverty, drugs and lack of educational opportunities.

Inspired by author Michelle Alexander's 2012 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Raw (real name: Karl Jenkins) in 2013 released a CD, "Jimmy's Back," his own take on the issue.

"I'm not a stranger to mass incarceration. So many of my friends growing up were in the judicial system," offered Raw, who is best-known as the primary writer and producer for Philly's band-of-all-seasons, the Roots. "But the way the book outlines it and presents the statistics, as well as the stories and different events that happened . . . [Alexander] presents a very compelling argument that even right-wing Republicans can't argue with, to a certain degree. I was definitely floored by the book. That's why I created the album."

The CD could have been Raw's last word on the subject, but others had different ideas. Last October, a stage version of the album premiered at North Philadelphia's New Freedom Theatre. Next week, an upgraded iteration of the piece is being mounted at the Prince Music Theater.

"My partner [Phillip S. Brown, who wrote the script] is from the theater world," said Raw. "When he heard the album, he said, 'It already sounds like a musical.' So he thought [that staging it theatrically] would make the most sense for a live performance. He wanted to develop it with me."

Logan native Raw, who also stars in "The Last Jimmy," acknowledged that he never had any theatrical aspirations for the album, "But, I . . . wanted to do something a little bit different than walking back and forth on the stage rapping about something that is very important. I wanted this to stand out, and I think it stands out more than me just rapping at [South Street's] TLA.

"I just want to educate people, and educate myself to try to prevent what's going on in privatized prisons. My main goal is to make privatized prisons illegal. I think it should be illegal for people to profit off of other peoples' mistakes in a mass form. I don't think that's cool."

Raw emphasized that his piece - whose title is a play on the phrase "Jim Crow" - is not just a protest against the mass-incarceration business. It also addresses what he described as cultural issues that conceivably help contribute to high rates of crime and incarceration among young black men.

Raw said that the show, which is choreographed by Rennie Harris, of Pure Movement Dance Company fame, "speaks to the disconnect between black males and black fathers, to black males who have a son who may feel any kind of disconnect emotionally or even physically - black males really don't hug . . . or kiss each other because [they're afraid] of being viewed as gay or effeminate. That's a huge disconnect between [black] fathers and sons."

On a more personal level, Raw has found his theatrical experience fraught with challenges unfamiliar to someone from the freewheeling world of hip-hop.

"It's hard," he admitted. "[As a rapper], I walk on stage and I have a CD playing [backing tracks]. Now, I have a whole band, there's dancers, it's crazy.

"When I mess up onstage by myself, no big woof. But now when I mess up, it has a ripple effect. You have to really be on point, no smoking weed, no drinking. It's very focused."

Big plans in Hammonton

The Eagle Theatre of Hammonton, N.J. has announced a fundraising campaign with a goal of raising $3 million in three years.

Eagle Managing Director James Donio used such words as "big," "bold" and "aggressive" to describe the "3 Year 3 Million" initiative during a Wednesday evening event to officially announce the program that will target individual donors as well as corporate underwriters and grants (marketing director Zane Sebasovich identified the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation as one confirmed source of funds).

According to Sebasovich, the money is earmarked for, among other things, educational programs and "innovation labs" that will develop new technologies that can be licensed to other theater companies. But what does this mean to those who patronize the acclaimed theater company's productions?

Co-Artistic Director Ted Wioncek III told us that while some resources will be allocated to infrastructure and technological upgrades that audiences may not notice, the infusion of cash should also allow him and his co-director, Ed Corsi, to conjure shows whose budgets have been cost-prohibitive to date.

Incidentally, the six-year-old company appears to be making a lot of noise in theatrical circles. Without naming any names, Donio said that numerous companies and venues have asked the Eagle folks to assume control of their operations. However, Donio said that he and his minions are exclusively focused on the Eagle's ambitious three-year-plan.