AURORA | “Who Killed Jigaboo Jones?” doesn’t follow the tried and true path of most one-man shows.
The one-man “mockumentary” about the life and death of a controversial rapper is an unlikely fit for a small stage and a single actor. The show includes multimedia elements, projections, lots of music and a large cast of characters, all played by writer Jeff Campbell. The themes are rooted in the business and profit behind modern hip-hop, and Campbell’s original drama also delves into difficult subjects like racism, black-on-black crime and poverty.
And then there’s the name of the show itself. The connotations in “Who Killed Jigaboo Jones?” may ring uncomfortably for many audience members before they even step into the theater.
“A new play is always difficult. The title is difficult. We’ve had pushback from that and we’ve also had people who have embraced it,” said Betts, an accomplished filmmaker and director who lives in Aurora. But even with Betts’ experience, this show posed many new challenges. “Is it a documentary theater piece? Is it hip-hop theater? How do we work this genre that’s still new?”
Many of those questions have to do with the unique structure of the piece itself. Written as a fake music documentary along the lines of the VH1 series “Behind the Music,” the show tracks the career and demise of a fictional hip-hop artist named Jigaboo Jones.
“You have a journalist who’s interviewing five different characters who were in Jones’ life,” said Campbell, a former professional hip-hop artist who wrote the show earlier this year. “The preacher of the church he grew up in, his manager, his former group member, the detective who investigated his drug trafficking allegations and his teacher who taught him performance and poetry.”
Campbell based all of these characters on ancient archetypes. The journalist wears the mask of a vulture, the teacher takes on the guise of a shapeshifter, the preacher sprouts devil horns, the crew member has the blank eyes and empty soul of a zombie. Jigaboo Jones is portrayed in the blackface makeup of a minstrel show from the early 20th century; he points a gun at his head and wears a noose around his neck.
Campbell said he drew on such controversial elements to offer a commentary about the current state of hip-hop. He wanted to explore the stereotypes that underlie the corporate music machine, he said, the conceptions of a black male as a violent, drug-addled criminal.
“Jones represents the death of hip-hop,” said Campbell, an artist who found early inspiration in the intellectual rhymes of artists like KRS One. “He represents the dominant world view of black males in America. It’s violent, criminal, uneducated, misogynist. Those things are parallel in hip-hop music.”
In tracking the life and death of this fictional character, Campbell wanted to explore how an art form he loves came to be co-opted from its roots. Campbell speaks of the underground roots of hip-hop in the streets and its current status as a global industry. That story is a big part of the show, he adds.
But the production isn’t all social and cultural commentary. The main action of the piece is right there in its title. A rapper is dead, and the audience has to sift through input from a wide range of characters to find out how it happened.
“The bottom line is that it’s a murder mystery,” Betts said. “It’s fun. It’s a very funny piece and it’s very profound.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]
“Who Killed Jigaboo Jones”
Runs from Oct. 4 to 19 at the Work Space,
2701 Lawrence St. in Denver.
Tickets start at $20.
Information: 720-221-3821 or workspacedenver.org
The really interesting characters are Lefty the Industry Vampire and Officer Duke Furman Limbaugh. Both of whom sport devil horns as well. Talk about hitting the nail on the head!!