Will Power is a playwright, actor, and educator who is credited as an early pioneer of hip-hop theater. His most recent play, DETROIT RED, tells the story of Malcolm X’s transformation from the hustler Detroit Red to the civil rights icon he would become as an adult. The play debuted in February 2020 with backing from ArtsEmerson in Boston. Power has received several awards for his work. Most recently, he was the recipient of the 2020 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding New Script.
ANNOUNCER: From the Bill Moyers Archive, Faith and Reason filmed at World Pen Voices Festival in 2006 now adapted for audio.
WILL POWER: Greek tragedies dealt with these human themes I feel that we’re still struggling with but how do I make that bridge over in today’s society so that someone like myself or someone younger will be able to connect with it?
ANNOUNCER: Will Power talks about Oedipus and hip-hop. God and inspiration.
That’s in this episode of Faith and Reason.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Welcome once again. In the audience, at the festival of writers, I noticed a young American actor, composer, playwright, and rapper whose talents are said to be helping transform modern theater. He won three big awards, including best musical, for his off-Broadway play that is based on ancient Greek myth. It’s the continuing saga of the sons of Oedipus, as told by the great dramatist, Aeschylus, in SEVEN AGAINST THEBES. Here’s Will Power with his troupe in rehearsal for the awards ceremony.
[POWER AND TROUPE REHEARSING]
BILL MOYERS: Power grew up in humble circumstances, the son of activist parents in San Francisco’s famous Fillmore District. Once upon a time, the Fillmore was known as “The Harlem of the West,” a cultural and musical frontier noted for jazz greats, rhythm and blues, the beat, zen, the Black Panthers, and the Grateful Dead. Will Power came east with the sounds of the Fillmore in his soul, determined to tell the story of Oedipus so his old neighborhood would dig it.
[POWER’S TROUPE REHEARSING]
BILL MOYERS: Oedipus, you’ll remember, was the king of Thebes found guilty of murder and incest, forced to abdicate and leave his kingdom to his two sons, only to watch them become rivals and kill each other.
BILL MOYERS: What in the world possessed you to take a 3,000-year-old Greek play and turn it into a racy, modern riff?
WILL POWER: Well, there’s a few things. I mean, one, in hip-hop, in hip-hop-culture, one of the things about hip hop is, how you take something old, and what we call, “flippin’ it.” How do you flip it?
BILL MOYERS: “Flipping” means you turn it?
WILL POWER: Flippin’ means you turn it into something that’s relevant and powerful for today. And a lot of people outside of hip hop culture don’t realize this, but a lot of hip hop is based on flippin’. And so, you might take an old record. You might take a Barry White record or a Stevie Wonder record. Or I may take some of Bill Moyers’ voice. And I might-
BILL MOYERS: You would really have to flip that.
WILL POWER: Well, you know, people have done it. You take it, and you might reverse it. Play it slower, chop it up, add your own baseline. And you create something new. And so, really, what hip hop is is paying homage to elders, paying homage to ancestors. It’s having a conversation with music and cultural styles that have come before and updating them. That’s a lot of what hip hop is. So, for me, how do I take something that’s an old story and that’s still relevant today? Because, you know, a lot of these Greek tragedies dealt with these human themes I feel that we’re still struggling with. But how do I make that bridge over in today’s society, so that someone like myself, or someone younger, will be able to connect with it?
BILL MOYERS: You performed an extreme makeover on Aeschylus’ play. I mean, you come from this stately cadence of ancient Greek, to doowop, and blues, and rhythm, and rap. And that was not just borrowing here and there. You really made it over.
WILL POWER: I made it over. But I did try to stick to the original themes. And I just tried to imagine, if these characters, these heroic and tragic figures were alive today, what would they look like? And who would Oedipus be in my community?
BILL MOYERS: Who would he be?
WILL POWER: Well, that’s the thing. Oedipus, in the original thing he’s this bitter guy. He feels like he’s been done wrong. He used to be of a high stature. He had a fall from grace. So, for me, that’d be someone who’s kind of like an old hustler from the 70s, you know? Who used to be kind of hip, but now is kind of old school. In my community, a lot of the old hustlers from the 70s that used to be, what we call, “high-rolling,” are now kind of of lower stature. They weren’t able to make that transition. So that’s what Oedipus was for me.
There’s a character by the name of Eteocles, and he’s a warrior. And in the original, he’s described as one of the seven warriors that rides horse. You know, he’s like really into horses. He has tons of horses. And so I was like, well, what would that be in my world? And I’m from California. So, for me, that warrior would be a policeman on a horse. You know what I mean? That’s what that would be. So as different as these characters ended up being in my version, I’d like to think that I tried to stick to the original, in terms of the vibration of it.
BILL MOYERS: Instead of the Greek chorus, you have a disc jockey.
WILL POWER: Yeah, I have a DJ. In contemporary hip hop culture, a lot of the times, the DJ is the storyteller. When you go to a party; you go to a hip hop club depending on what kind of records the DJ plays, they’re telling you a certain story, or a certain series of stories that have a connection. And a DJ is the one that can, like I said, take a record from the 1950’s, for example, or the 1970’s, take a Stevie Wonder record, and take the hip hop record that sampled from the Stevie Wonder record, and play them both together, mix them. So, it makes sense that the DJ can take this ancient old text and mix it with contemporary text. And I kind of approached it that way. I actually took some of the ancient text and put it, like you said, with the record’s voice. And put it into the modern text.
BILL MOYERS: What appealed to you about this particular play?
WILL POWER: Well, I think, for me, there’s a number of things. It’s the question of, “Do we, as individuals; do we, as a community; and do we, as a nation, really, and as a world, do we have the power to make changes? Do we have the power to rule our own destiny? Or, are we destined to make the same mistakes as our foremothers and our forefathers?” And I know that question is posed in the original SEVEN AGAINST THEBES, by Aeschylus. And that question is really personal to me. I’ve had a lot of drama in my family. With my fathers, a lot of drug abuse. A lot of violence; a lot of drama, in my family; in the community. So, the question was: “Am I destined to make those same mistakes? Or can I re-imagine myself?” And I think those are the same questions that Oedipus’ sons were asking. “Are we destined to fulfill this curse that our father put on us? This curse; this weight; this pain. Or can we break it?” The two characters, the sons of Oedipus that are kind of like the central characters here, they’re constantly wrestling back and forth. And initially they’re like, “God is on our side.” Which everyone’s always saying now. Bush is like “God’s on our side”, you know? And al-Qaeda’s like, “God’s on our-” Everyone says God’s on their side. And so, the brothers are like, “God’s on our side,” and then they’re like, “Well, maybe God’s not on our side.” “Well, God’s on my side. He’s not on my brother’s side.” You know? So I feel like, again, I don’t have any answers. I know what I believe personally. But I feel like that issue of fate, of what does God want me to do is something that has always been, I think, very very prominent in our psyche as human beings and will continue to be, because we’re always wondering about that. “Who is God? What is God? What am I supposed to do? Is this right? Is this wrong?
BILL MOYERS: How do you experience God?”
WILL POWER: I experience God in my meditation. I experience God with my wife. But I think a lot of it is also just in the moment of writing or in the moment of performing. There’s an energy that happens. And if you look at any artist that you’re really attracted to, there’s something else going on there, you understand? There’s an energy happening. And so I feel like that’s God. I’ve been blessed to be doing this for a while now. And that’s God. God is creativity and the possibility of what’s possible.
BILL MOYERS: How would the people in your world of hip hop, how would they resonate with the theme in Oedipus, of the fact that his father was cursed, he is cursed, he curses his sons.
WILL POWER: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: And fate is fate. There’s nothing to do about it. Would they feel that in the hip hop world?
WILL POWER: Absolutely. You know, I feel like a lot of my friends, a lot of my contemporaries, we wrestle with some of those issues. I think that we try to do the best. Like Oedipus didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to marry his mother and, you know, murder his father. He didn’t even know. And then when he found out, remember he left the other kingdom, because he thought he was leaving his parents. But they were really his adoptive parents. So, a lot of times, we don’t want to do that. But sometimes, we make these mistakes anyway, in spite of ourselves. So I feel like it’s something that we definitely wrestle with in the community. And I feel like a lot of cultures do wrestle with that, even beyond hip hop culture. I feel like the whole question of what will we take from our fathers and our mothers, the beautiful things, the essence of the culture? And what will we try to leave behind? And I feel like every generation has to question that, and look at that.
BILL MOYERS: There’s that moment in your play, when Oedipus looks up and says in effect, I’m paraphrasing him: “God made me the way I am.”
WILL POWER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: “It’s not my fault,” in a way.
WILL POWER: Right. Right Well, see, that’s the question. Are we destined to just fail? Or do we have the power to break it? And I think that Oedipus, by the end of the play, that’s how he feels, as a character. He feels like, “You know what? There’s nothing I could have done. This is it. This is what it is.” But, after Oedipus says that, the DJ comes out and asks the audience, “When are we gonna flip the record? When are we gonna remix this record?” This old record has been playing for thousands of years. This record of wars, record of destruction. When are we going to flip the record? And for me, like I said, it’s all about flipping it. You know, like it reminds me of THE WIZ, for example. It’s a very different piece but–
BILL MOYERS: THE WIZ?
WILL POWER: Yeah. I mean, it’s a different piece. But THE WIZ, you know, it took this American classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ, but they flipped it into something at that time that was very current. Soul, funk. They made THE WIZARD OF OZ, “THE WIZ,” you know? They brought this classic to them. And I think that’s a sign of empowerment really. To take an old story that you’re not in and really make it yours. But still–
BILL MOYERS: Well, Aeschylus did that. Euripides did that. Homer did that. All of the great classics were taken from figments and fragments of the past.
WILL POWER: Right. Right, right, yeah. Before their time.
BILL MOYERS: But I think Aeschylus would be turning over in his grave right now, if he had seen your play, don’t you?
WILL POWER: I don’t know. I don’t know, you know. I mean, I’d like to think- I’d like to think that he would dig it, you know what I mean?
BILL MOYERS: Well, yes.
WILL POWER: But I don’t know. You got to remember, you know these stories are from myths that are, what? Three, four, five hundred years older than Aeschylus. So, these myths, these stories are not even from Aeschylus’ time. They’re from older times that he took and flipped for his time. Now whether his spirit would see the connection or not, I can’t say.
BILL MOYERS: I think he probably would have been applauding if he could have imagined his characters in modern guise today.
WILL POWER: Yeah, I don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: What– how did you get interested in mythology?
WILL POWER: Well, you know, what is mythology to me? A myth is a story that holds in it the values and the culture and the rhythm and the vibrations of a people. So for me, a lot of my work has been mythological in a sense. Not in terms of the Western classics, but in terms of my own neighborhood, my own community. There’s a whole mythology that has grown up around me in that area; characters that you see, people, real life. But there are some stories about them that are true; some stories that aren’t. They get blown into fantastical proportions. So I feel like I’ve always been moved into myth, into the heroics, into to the largeness of it, you know? Into the drama of it. And also, not all myths, but a lot of myths are rhythmic. You know, they have rhythms. They’re in verse. And I feel like hip hop is natural to that. Hip hop is all about rhythms and pop.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, well, the Greek choruses were chanted.
WILL POWER: Exactly. And, you know, it’s a trip, because… Again, I just think of hip hop lyrics or song lyrics from R&B, or country, or anything. If you took away how they sounded, how much would we lose, you know? So I feel like as much of a blessing as it is to have these ancient texts, I’m sure we’re not getting the full “umph,” you know, of them, because they were chanted. They were supposed to be all sung. They were danced. And it was supposed to be a real like, I don’t want to say primal, but a real guttural type thing, you know? And I feel like in some ways we over-intellectualize these myths and put them in this category of high art. But really these stories were originally stories that the common people told, right? I mean, Homer, if you look at Homer. Supposedly we don’t even know if Homer could read or write. There’s debate about that. But he was an oral poet, that’s what we think, in the so-called Greek Dark Ages, and he told these stories. And this was the way that the people kept their history alive. I feel like that’s what hip hop is. It’s oral-based. It’s based in the community, and these are stories that are told that keep the community alive. Some of these stories are violent. Some of these stories are peaceful. Some of these stories are uplifting. Some of these stories are about this girl that I like. Some of these stories are real deep. Some of the stories are shallow, but they’re lyrical stories. They’re sonic, lyrical stories.
BILL MOYERS: Who is your favorite character in Aeschylus?
WILL POWER: I would say Oedipus. I would say Oedipus.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
WILL POWER: I just think it’s because it’s that whole question of- It’s like a man who is trying to do right. But for whatever reason, he can’t do it. Now whether that’s because fate is against him, or whether because he really could have made better decisions. That’s the question. But he’s trying to do right. Oedipus, as evil as a cat he is, you know, and as bad as he is, and you know, he puts this curse on his sons, he does this, as bad as he is, it comes from a place of feeling disrespected. It’s like his sons disrespected him. He’s like, “Wait a minute, but I tried. I tried. Don’t disrespect me.” You know what I mean? And I’m just fascinated by that kind of character.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you remind me of when Aeschylus has the chorus at the end say, “You don’t have to kill each other. You don’t have to kill each other.” And the sons say, “Yes, we do. Yes, we do.”
WILL POWER: Right, right.
BILL MOYERS: And it is a Greek tragedy, so they wind up killing each other.
WILL POWER: Right, right, right. And I hope that people will see the production and think of tragedy as a way of like… it was supposed to be a healing process. It was supposed to be a warning, and it was supposed to be used not to depress people or to be like, “Everything’s going to hell.” You know? But it was supposed to be, in a way, an uplifting thing, and say, “We are determined to take the challenge of this play, and we’re going to do better.”
BILL MOYERS: What’s the moment of truth for you in SEVEN AGAINST THEBES? When you really think something breaks through and you appropriate it and take it into your own life?
WILL POWER: Because it’s a tragedy, I think the moment of truth occurs when the brothers lose faith in each other. The older brother loses faith in the younger brother, and the younger brother loses faith in the older brother. Like, “He’s gonna mess it up, so I need to take care of this myself,” or “He’s gonna cheat me. He’s gonna manipulate me, so I don’t trust him.” And I feel like, because it’s a tragedy, that’s the moment of truth. And I think, for me, it’s a metaphor for the bigger problem, what’s going on. We have a lack of faith in our brothers, you know, in our sisters, whether that means one country to another. We have a lack of faith. And I think that lack of faith is destroying us. That doesn’t mean, like, blind hope. That doesn’t mean, “I’ll let you do anything you want to me.” But it’s like we don’t have faith in each other.
We have such little trust and it permeates in the local neighborhood. It permeates in the society, in America, and it permeates throughout the country. So I think that’s the moment of truth in the play. It doesn’t mean that it has to always be the truth. But that’s the moment of truth. When these brothers start off with good intentions and they lose faith in each other.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see life yourself as a tragedy?
WILL POWER: No! No, no. In fact, this play was very difficult for me to work on, because I feel like I’m a pretty optimistic guy. Most of my plays are very optimistic and have more happy endings, in a way. So, I feel like that’s why, in some ways, I was drawn to this, because what would it be to put myself within this world of a tragedy? And I even tried to like make it “un-tragic” at the end. But it doesn’t work. I even tried to change it. But–
BILL MOYERS: What did you try to do?
WILL POWER: Well, I tried for a while to see how I could make it that the two brothers wouldn’t kill each other at the end. Like, does a DJ come in and stop the record at the end, you know? Does Oedipus say, “I made a mistake.” I tried all those different ways. But the sound designer on the production, Darron West, he said that he feels that some plays have DNA. There’s a DNA in the play. And so even though you can change it and you can flip it and you can make the characters vastly different, there’s a certain deep, intrinsic fabric of the play. And so when you try to deviate too much from it, I don’t mean in form or style, but I mean the meat, the content of it, then the play is going to pull you. So, every time I tried to do that, it just wasn’t honest. These two brothers were going to kill each other in this show. Now some people might have said, “Well, you’re the playwright and you have all the power in this play.”
BILL MOYERS: You’re God.
WILL POWER: Yeah, you’re God. You should have just had the DJ come in, or a deus ex machina. You should have just brought the machine in and just did it. But it just didn’t feel right. And there’s nothing worse, I think, than being in the audience and having a play and you’re really moved, and at the end you’re like, “Oh, that’s so corny.” You know?
BILL MOYERS: But you attracted people to the play who would never have read the original Aeschylus, right?
WILL POWER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that’s one of the joys of it. That’s one of the joys. And that’s one reason why I had to try to keep the themes the same, but pull them into a contemporary context, because I feel, again, remember these ancient plays, they were sung, they were danced, and that’s a different way than the way they’re presented now within a classroom environment, for the most part, in a kind of academic setting. And so I think it’s really hard for a lot of young people to dig them, because they’re not presented the way they used to be, and it’s kind of a rigid way. So I was really trying to bring them in and have people be like, “I know Oedipus. That’s a cat in my neighborhood. I know Eteocles. I know Thaddeus. I know those characters.” And hopefully they’ll get the themes. And I definitely got that. I got a lot of young people being, “I’m gonna go back and read some of these scripts with a different eye and not be so prejudiced.” And I got it from the other side. I got old people, like, people in their 70’s and 80’s being like, “I thought I hated hip hop, but but I actually could follow the story. And now I’m gonna go back and maybe pick up a Tupac CD.” I’ve actually got that. “And see what this is really about, instead of writing the whole thing off.”
BILL MOYERS: What inspires you?
WILL POWER: What inspires me?
BILL MOYERS: What’s your source of inspiration?
WILL POWER: Again, my inspiration is the creative spirit, God and the magic in life and my ancestors and my family. And my family includes my wife, my mother, my father, my sisters, and my community. I live in Beacon, New York now. But I’m originally from the Fillmore which is in San Francisco. And in San Francisco and in the Bay Area, there’s such a rich culture there. It’s so diverse, everything from an amazingly strong Asian presence, amazingly strong Latino presence. The Black Panthers were started there. There’s such amazing culture there. And since I’m from there, there are so many different stories and things that- they inspire me, you know. The Fillmore inspires me. And Beacon inspires me. That’s my new home now. So I’m- I get inspiration by everything, all over the place. And I try to do it a little better. You know, I’m not going to be perfect. I used to try to be perfect. I’d say, “I’m gonna try to be perfect.” But I’m not. You can’t try to be perfect. Just try to be a little better. Maybe I won’t make as many mistakes as my father made, and my mother made. I’m not better than them. Maybe I just– I’ll just make less mistakes. And hopefully my children will make less mistakes. And hopefully every generation will just get more and more progressive.
BILL MOYERS: Well, Aeschylus is not very optimistic about that.
WILL POWER: No, he’s not.
BILL MOYERS: He says we keep repeating the same mistakes.
WILL POWER: No, he’s not. But in SEVEN AGAINST THEBES, in Aeschylus’s play, he had the chorus really questioning the king which was one of the brothers and saying, “You don’t have to make this mistake. You don’t have to do that.” And supposedly that was very revolutionary in Aeschylus’ time, even though the main king still ends up going out and killing his brother and being killed. But supposedly just the fact of having the chorus question the king like that was very very very revolutionary and it was a big risk for Aeschylus to take. So, I feel like, even though he was a pessimist in the sense of working that genre, that was a very optimistic thing to do in that time. Just have the chorus be like, “You don’t have to do this. Don’t do it.” A lot of the play is devoted towards the chorus really urging the king, “You don’t have to do it. God won’t look down on you.” You know, I mean, they go back and forth.
BILL MOYERS: Where’s our chorus today?
WILL POWER: Where’s our chorus today? It’s in me, man. It’s in you! It’s in the people. It’s in the common people, you know, that are telling these stories. I mean, I feel like the leaders come and go. But it’s the stories that will continue, you know? We’re the chorus.
BILL MOYERS: Will Power, thank you for being with me.
WILL POWER: Thank you so much, Bill. Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening, visit Bill Moyers.com to learn more about the Faith and Reason series.