Karl “Dice Raw” Jenkins, the Roots-associated rapper, was nearly set to open his Hamilton-inspired Philly play Henry Box Brown: A Hip Hop Musical at New Freedom Theatre on North Broad Street. “And then the pipes burst.”
“It was only a little water in the lobby,” he says of the New Freedom deluge recently, “but enough so we can’t use it. Too bad.”
“I was so looking forward to working there,” he says, “this great venue, for historical and cultural reasons, and one of the oldest black theaters in the country.” The world premiere has been relocated to Bonnell Auditorium at Community College of Philadelphia. The show, cowritten with Phillip S. Brown, will go on Feb. 1-17.
“This is such a great Philadelphia story,” Dice Raw says. In 1849, the enslaved Henry “Box” Brown smuggled himself to freedom in the mail, in a wooden box that took 27 hours to travel from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia.
“So many things drew me to him,” the rappers says. “He sang in his church choir, wrote poetry, was a loving family man, and was well-liked by his slave masters. He had such a full humanity, which African American slaves don’t get a lot when we tell their stories.”
Hip-hop is the ideal vehicle for both show and message, he says. “When I saw Hamilton, I thought it was great. To me, the real success of Hamilton was that kids could be educated without boredom. Hip-hop is very direct. It’s about real expression, with nothing getting in the way. That makes it a great way to educate.”
Dice Raw has formed his cast from artists at his company, Rawlife Records, including Minister Jamie Knight Johnson and Gina Zo. “We have some surprises for the audience,” he says. “This isn’t just your normal straightforward musical.”