Trapped in a Black Box: An Improvised Hiphop Opera (the title, of course, recalls R. Kelly's "rap opera" Trapped in the Closet) attempts to do something that seems interesting: marrying the theatrical tradition of improv with the hiphop tradition of freestyling. Unexpected Productions, which performs this experiment in a theater below Pike Place Market, is not only rooted in the former tradition, but also has an improv school—the largest in the Northwest, its website claims. The school promises that students will improve public presentation, teaming skills, and improvisational skills, and overcome shyness. As for the latter tradition, the freestyle side, Unexpected Productions doesn't have this depth and confidence.
Hiphop freestyle has been with rap from the beginning, and involves rappers freeing themselves from the pen and pad and letting rhymes come fresh off the top of the dome. In the old days, you could tell if rappers were lazy freestylers if they used tropes like battling Superman ("Superman came into town to see he who he could rock") or frequently retreated to the call to "Throw your hands in the air." By the '90s, freestyling became baroque with battle-rap events that captured national attention. "Doseone battled Eminem at Cincinnati's annual Scribble Jam in 1997," music critic Dave Segal wrote in The Stranger in 2003. "While we all know Em's story (and the mythologized Hollywood version portrayed in 8 Mile), Doseone has lit up the underground with a unique aesthetic flame." Battle-rappers are another breed of freestylers. They deliberately throw themselves into the deepest hole possible, where it seems no rope of a rhyme can reach, and somehow, some way, they must find and say the impossible word without missing a beat. (Seattle rappers meet every week to freestyle—communally, not battling—at a Tuesday event at Lo-Fi called Stop Biting.)
Regrettably, this attempt to bridge these two improvisational arts is not a success. (I have to admit, I did not stay for the whole show, for mostly personal reasons.) The problem is almost entirely found on the rap side of the union. An improv actor is always a good comic and can play off what others have said, but with freestyle, it's more about the rapper and the beat. On several occasions, the improvisers would throw out a line and completely fail to catch the rhyme: "I'm looking for milk in the fridge/But all I see is a lot of grass..." This is painful. You should never do that. You must rhyme no matter what, no matter how bad or gross: "I'm looking for milk in the fridge/But all I see is a lot of jizz..." And that kind of no-matter-what attitude is needed if this kind of experiment is going to work. Also, the DJ, who stood on the side of the stage, needed to get his sounds down (though I did like his space-alien look—very old-school). Often, the volume on a track was too high, or too low, or the beat did not fit the development of the improvised plot, which on Sunday night had a Mother's Day theme.
Without a solid DJ and a mastery of top-of-the-dome rap, a show like Trapped in a Black Box will suffer. One can imagine a kind of cultural-exchange program, where actors who are skilled at improv and rappers who are skilled at freestyling meet and teach each other their art forms—but on top of finding and working with talented battle-rappers, you have to narrow the search to the few who are genuinely funny. All of this is a tall order, so it's not surprising that Trapped in a Black Box misses much more than it hits.