King Kong Comes to Central Park

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The myth becomes hip hop legend in city parks

The City Parks Foundation's SummerStage is celebrating the 40th anniversary of hip hop with a show (loosely based) on the myth of King Kong. This could only be the brainchild of seasoned collaborators and New Yorkers Randy Weiner and Alfred Preisser. It was the duos' extensive and eccentric background in theater that enabled them to combine the history of hip hop with the myth of King King. This August, their creation can be seen in parks across Manhattan. Weiner took a break from rehearsal to discuss his passion for quirky productions, the DJ who started hip-hop in the South Bronx, and how a park makes an exciting venue for live theater.

How did you come up with this idea?

Last year, Alfred worked on shows that happened at SummerStage. I guess they went well because he was approached about creating new work. It's the 40th anniversary of hip hop, so the Parks Foundation is doing a whole thing about that. Alfred and I had always talked about doing something based on the hip-hop music industry and this sort of fantasy of the King Kong myth, and putting those things together. We pitched it to this very brave and artistically sensitive man, Freedome Bradley, who runs the Parks Foundation. Freedome was like, "I love that."

Who choreographed it?

Ryan Kasprzak. He's hilarious. What we're trying to do is take the story of hip hop and the relationship between Jewish record executives and African American performers, and tell it in a new, hopefully, funny way. And Ryan is a great musical theater choreographer, who has also done "So You Think You Can Dance." Most people would think if you're doing a story about hip hop, you use hip hop music. Actually we're using every other kind of music except hip hop.

How is it different putting on a show in a park?

Really exciting because I'd like to think that the show we're doing has enough energy that it will grip an audience in the park. It's a whole other level to hold someone's attention when they're sitting in a quiet place versus sitting in a park with all sorts of distractions. Alfred and I are not like Broadway babies, we've always been interested in more community-oriented, cutting-edge theater.

What are yours and Alfred's background in theater?

I produce a show now in New York called Sleep No More. It's actually in three six-story buildings, 100,000 square feet. We tell the story of Macbeth and you wander around the space, see scenes, and put together what's going on. Alfred created The Classic Theatre of Harlem and did these incredible shows out of Harlem School of the Arts. Both of us have worked together for years before this, doing these stage versions of classics.

I know someone who has a Sleep No More tattoo!

There's an amazing number of people who have gotten tattoos of various symbols of the show or the logo of the hotel it all happens in.

So your show is based on the history of hip hop. There was one man who was credited with starting the genre.

It's funny. I'm 48 now and grew up in New York City and was never really into music. I remember distinctly when it [hip hop] hit the airwaves. I didn't live in the South Bronx, the actual birthplace; I lived on the Upper East Side. It was on WKTU, the disco station of the nation. I heard the sound of hip hop and thought it was the most exciting thing I'd ever heard. The rawness of the beats and the directness of the lyrics. The wit and the comedy that was always in the original hip hop songs. In 1978, you're starting to hear Sugar Hill Gang. But before that, there was a Jamaican guy named Kool Herc who threw a party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. That party is considered the original moment of hip hop.

People may not realize that until they come see your show.

That's the official story of hip hop and our show references it. When the record executives go up to the South Bronx, they discover this incredible rapper who goes by the name of King Kong.

How did you put together the cast of King Kong?

It's a combination of a bunch of actors who Alfred and I have worked with. But we always like to hold auditions, because every day, new actors come to the city with the dream of doing something interesting.

Can you summarize the plot?

A record company, owned by three brothers from Long Island, is going through hard times and desperate to discover new sounds. Their office girl, because they're not so politically correct, happens to discover this tape that has this amazing new sound. And the tape came from the South Bronx. The brothers go up there in search of this amazing artist who they're sure will save their record label. They go through a lot of travails in the Bronx in 1978. When they finally find King Kong and want to bring him back to Manhattan to make him an international sensation, he doesn't necessarily want that. He falls in love and they're all sorts of twists.

What can you tell us about the Bronx in the late '70s?

There's a famous line from Howie Cosell when the World Series was playing in the South Bronx then. They did a helicopter shot and saw fires there, and he famously said, "The Bronx is burning," because it was such a crazy time and out of control.

What is the message you are trying to send through this new show?

It's about music being this incredible force that draws all these people together. Despite all the battles and differences between people, there's something about music that's amazing.

King Kong is playing at Central Park on August 5th

Marcus Garvey Park August 13-14, and 17th

End River Park August 20-22

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