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Hip-hop Shakespeare hits The Festival

image of Q Brothers

JQ and GQ make up the Q Brothers who remix Shakespeare into modern, hip-hop productions.

Retelling famed stories with rhythm and rhyme in a way that connects with audiences of the day—it could be the perfect description of William Shakespeare…or hip hop.

The Q Brothers, two Chicago boys who have taken their hip-hop versions of the Bard’s works across the globe (and to the Globe), will perform their latest work at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in July with an adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona called Q Gents. Watch a rehearsal of their newest work.

The comedy, commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, features the two brothers playing all the parts—with more than 75 lightning-fast costume changes. The hip-hop version stays true to the spirit of the Bard.

“The very nature of what Shakespeare did is what hip-hop culture is about,” said Jeffery Qaiyum, known as JQ, who makes up half of the Q Brothers. “The sampling, and borrowing phrases from that story or this chorus are true to both Shakespeare and hip hop.”

Often people ask the duo what gives them the right to remake Shakespeare. Gregory Qaiyum, known as GQ, laughed at the idea. “At one point, people wondered who in the hell Shakespeare was to mess with the stories of Aristophanes. We’re just carrying on the same tradition.”

It was GQ who stumbled across the merger of hip hop and Shakespeare. Completing his studies at New York University’s (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts, his small team decided to rewrite The Comedy of Errors because they didn’t have enough time to create an original piece. GQ called on his musician brother, who was also in New York studying to become a studio technician, to create the backbeats. The result was The Bomb-itty of Errors.

The play was a success, and the small troop took it on the road. The Bomb-itty of Errors took the jury prize at the Aspen Comedy Festival in 2001 after an acclaimed Off-Broadway run. Their following work caught the attention of the organizers of the Globe To Globe Festival in London, and they asked the Q Brothers to adapt Othello into hip hop. The resulting piece, Othello: The Remix sold out shows at the Bard’s old stomping ground, the Globe Theatre. “The U.K. press flipped over it. The reaction was incredible, and it led to us playing in Edinburgh, Scotland, and all over,” said GQ. The brothers took Othello: The Remix to nine countries, including South Korea and Abu Dhabi. The production also came home for a long, successful run at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier. “It was surreal.”

Their productions, which also include Funk It Up About Nothin and I <3 Juliet, are all crafted into rhyme and set into modern scenes. In their newest adaptation, Q Gents, Verona becomes “Verona College Prep.” The big decision for main characters Valentine and Proteus is not whether to travel to Milan, but whether to resume their star roles on the football team. In one scene, Valentine teases Proteus about turning himself inside out for his girlfriend Julia.

Proteus: She’s got me taking all these after-school art classes
            And the fact is, I don’t have time for football practice.

Valentine: Think bigger. Art classes just to stick with her?
            I’ve known you since you were 3, you can’t draw a stick figure!

When approached about writing the adaptation for Two Gentlemen of Verona, high school immediately popped into GQ’s head. “I thought, ‘Who could possibly make this many dumb moves? When was I ever this dumb?’ Then I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, it was in high school,’” he said with a laugh.

While the brothers have worked in acting, writing, and music production throughout their nearly two-decade-long careers, they are finding a special connection with Q Gents. “This one feels like me and G back in our parents’ family room making up stupid plays and voices as kids,” said JQ. “Our goal has always been entertainment, and this is a great way to crack people up and have a good time. Plus, it’s just fun.”