Act I, Scene 1: Four actors in well-worn coveralls and baseball caps take the stage at the county jail. They're here to tell a tale of love, friendship, jealousy and betrayal. It's the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. The names and themes haven't changed over the centuries, but the language has a modern beat:
"Othello never knew,
He was getting schemed on by a member of his crew."
This is Othello - The Remix, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's hip-hop version of the tragedy about a valiant Moor deceived by the villainous Iago into mistakenly believing his wife has been unfaithful. After Othello smothers his beloved Desdemona, he discovers she has been true to him and he kills himself.
That's how Shakespeare told the story 400 years ago. This modern version, performed last week for about 450 Cook County jail inmates, is a rhyming, rapping, poetic homage to the Bard. It has singing and dancing, comic touches, men playing women, sexual talk, references to Eddie Murphy and James Brown, and a throbbing beat, courtesy of an onstage DJ.
The Othello remix is the brainchild of two Chicago brothers and rappers, GQ and JQ, aka Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum. They wrote and directed the show, honing 40 or so drafts over eight months into a 75-minute rhyme-a-thon. It's their third hip-hop translation of Shakespeare, following The Bomb-itty of Errors and Funk It Up About Nothin'.
This new Othello, originally commissioned by Shakespeare's Globe Theater, has been performed in England, South Korea and Chicago. Taking the play behind bars, the brothers expected the inmates would apply themes written four centuries ago to their own lives today.
Watching the inmates applaud and laugh in the sweltering gym, Rick Boynton, the show's creative producer, says he quickly knew the play had struck a chord.
The Q brothers say they have chatted with Shakespeare scholars and others who arrive at their shows sceptical and leave impressed.
"We're treating the work with respect and we think he was a genius," GQ says. "But our philosophy is, you want to live on as an art form 500 years later, you can't do it the same way."
In fact, GQ says, if Shakespeare were around nowadays, "I think he'd be doing this. He'd be a rapper."
The Q brothers are now working on a hip-hop version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and plan to eventually create hip-hop translations of all of Shakespeare's works, including A Mad-Summer Night's Dream.