New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

Dubbed "the most respected—and the most brilliant—hip-hop choreographer in America" by The New Yorker, Lorenzo "Rennie" Harris reigns supreme in his hometown of Philadelphia. This June, he brings his latest world premiere, Rennie Harris: Funkedified, to the New Vic stage!

We sat down with Rennie and a few Funkedified dancers from his company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, to talk about the power and joy of movement and his mission to bring street dance to the world.

In between visiting "as many block parties as possible and dancing all night," Rennie Harris began teaching at universities around the country at just 15-years-old. Since then, he’s dedicated his life to preserving and presenting street dance as a legitimate art form. While breaking the stereotypes and expectations of what hip-hop culture can be, Harris has received two honorary doctorates, founded two dance companies and created Philadelphia’s annual Illadelph Legends of Hip-Hop Festival.

Funkedified Cast

The power of dance is a tangible thing in the world of Rennie Harris. His original work encompasses the diverse and rich African American traditions of the past, while presenting the voice of a new generation through an ever-evolving interpretation of dance. In choreographing he says, “I'm always chasing the feeling of freedom I get when I dance or when I choreograph a new piece,” and he aims to bring that sense of empowerment to others. 

Phil Cuttino Jr., who joined Rennie Harris Puremovement in 2012, emphasizes that dance has, "helped me learn about myself as a human, as a man, as a son and as a leader." Puremovement's Tatiana Desardouin adds, "[Dance] helps me discover new things about myself as a confident woman."

Throughout his impressive body of work, there's one continuous thread—spreading the word of hip-hop and street dance throughout the country. Since their founding, his two eminent companies, Rennie Harris Puremovement (New Vic 1999, 2004, 2015, 2018) and Rennie Harris RHAW (New Vic 2013), have taken center stage. Puremovement was born in 1992 to "re-educate [the public] about hip-hop and its culture through artistic work, lecture demonstrations and discussions."

Puremovement and Funkedified dancer Ricky "Glytch" Evans feels especially drawn to its core mission. He says, "My favorite thing about being a dancer is the ability to inspire others. Whether it's through teaching or performing, dance makes me feel something special, no matter how I'm engaging with it. It's a gift to positively affect the emotions of those around me by doing something that I love."

Funkedified Cast

Though thrilled with Puremovement's success, Rennie saw a problem quickly develop. Many talented young artists were lining up to audition—too many, in fact. They didn’t quite have the level of professionalism needed to join his flagship company. So, in 2007, he created a solution—RHAW (Rennie Harris Awe-Inspiring Works).

Initially conceived as a youth organization, driven by community outreach and education, RHAW has evolved into a training program to "forge new paths for young hip-hop hopefuls, and present hip-hop in its 'RHAW-est' forms." Often, those "young hip-hop hopefuls" transfer from RHAW to Rennie Harris Puremovement. There, the students become the educators and inspire a new generation of dancers. 

Outside of his companies, Rennie tries to reach the simply educating it! A professor at over 11 universities (and counting), he’s inspired dancers all over the country in the classroom. Puremovement’s Leigh Foaad recalls, "My wife snuck me into Rennie's class at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for two years. Then, I was invited to his annual festival, Illadelph, and was asked to join RHAW. Soon, I became a member of Rennie Harris Puremovement."

For Rennie’s fifth visit to the New Vic, he wanted to bring something special, a look back on his own coming of age in Philadelphia. This is a brand new work that’s not only entertaining, but reframes an artform that’s commonly dismissed as just "subway entertainment." Funkedified is a celebration of funk, through and through, but more importantly it’s a celebration of Rennie’s evolution as a dancer, choreographer and educator, set to the tune of the music that echoed through his childhood and inspired him to first learn to pop, lock and break!
Funkedified Thumb Get on up with Rennie Harris Puremovement! Inspired by the soundtrack of his youth—Soul Train on the TV and James Brown on the radio—Rennie Harris celebrates all that is funk in the world premiere of Funkedified. Get your tickets today!
Posted by Beth Henderson

Based on the book by Newbery Medal-winning author Paul Fleischman, Seedfolks tells the story of a neighborhood brought together by one small girl planting seeds in an abandoned lot. We sat down with award-winning actress Sonja Parks, who brings to life each and every resident of Gibb Street!

1. Tell us about playing so many characters. What is it like developing each one of them?

The sheer number of characters (about 22, including all of the minor characters) and how different they all are from one another, coupled by the fact that they not only talk to each other, but also interact with each other, makes it a challenge!

When we're creating each character, developing a physical life for each is very important. I have to ask myself a lot of questions to make sure they are as fleshed-out as possible. How alike or unlike me are they, physically? How do they move or gesture? Are they younger or older, taller or shorter, thinner or stouter? I need to ask all of these questions and put the answers in my body so the character can begin to live.

After the physical work is done, I need to determine how many things I have in common with my character's personality—good or bad. We all have parts of ourselves that we're not especially proud of or that we're working to change, learn and grow from. That's what makes us human. If I'm not being honest about myself as a person—faults and all—I can't be honest about my character. Once I've answered all those questions and put the answers in my body, we get into the rehearsal room and just play! That's the fun part—seeing the characters come alive after I've laid all the groundwork.

Sonja Parks

2. When did you first read the book Seedfolks?

I had never read the book before I began working on this show! When the show's director, Peter C. Brosius, and dramaturg, Elissa Adams, first asked me to do the workshop, they gave me a copy of the script and a copy of the book. That was the very first time I'd ever read it. I was struck by the poignancy of each story and the careful way Paul Fleischman made sure he didn't talk down to his young readers. That's so important—kids are a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for. When we wrote the script to Seedfolks, we wanted to make certain we stayed true to that idea.

3. How did you first get involved with Children's Theatre Company?

When I first moved to Minneapolis from Los Angeles, a friend told me about all of the theaters I should check out. Children's Theatre Company (CTC) was one of them. I scheduled an audition, got called back for three shows and was cast in all three. I had so much fun doing the first show, I knew I'd found one of my theatrical homes! 

4. Why do you think theater is important at this moment in time?

Theater teaches us how to empathize with one another. When we go to the theater, we exist in the same space together, watching other human beings navigate their problems and challenges. Often, we discover that the things we think divide us, really unify us—our insecurities, faults and places where we fall short. When we're able to connect with another person, it's harder to dismiss their humanity. 

Sonja Parks

5. What's the most memorable audience reaction you've seen to Seedfolks?

There's one moment in the show where I introduce two audience members to each other. One night, I noticed a little girl who was sitting in the front row. She was so sweet and so involved in watching the show that I couldn't ignore her! I went up to her and asked her name. She hesitated for a few seconds and then, quite seriously, said, "My name is Princess Sonja." The whole audience laughed and I, too, had to stifle a smile. I said, "It's so nice to meet you, Princess Sonja. Would you mind coming with me for a minute?" After checking with her father, she took my hand. 

I noticed an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair sitting far-stage right. I took Princess Sonja over to him and asked the gentleman his name. "My name is Saul," he said. I replied, "Nice to meet you, Saul. Saul, this is Princess Sonja." Without missing a beat, the little girl jumped into his lap and gave him a big hug. "Hi Saul!" she screamed. The gentleman was surprised for a second, but then he hugged her right back and said, "Hi, Princess." There was a collective "awwww" from the audience. I gently disentangled the Princess from the gentleman and took her back to her parents. 

When people drop their guard and exist in a moment with one another, that's when the real theater magic can begin!

6. Is there a particular story in Seedfolks that particularly resonates with you?

There are many stories in the play that resonate with me for very different reasons. One of my favorites is Sae Young—a Korean woman who has misfortune befall her. She's special to me because she doesn't allow those things to harden her heart. She keeps looking for the good in life and in people. That's a philosophy I strive to live by. 

Photos: Dan Norman
Seedfolks Thumb Named one of "Seven Artists You Must See" by American Theatre, Sonja Parks brilliantly embodies over a dozen distinct and diverse characters in this enthralling solo production. Get your tickets to Seedfolks today!
Posted by Beth Henderson
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