Shakespeare. Katanas. Graffiti. Brooklyn.
Calling Ron Wimberly’s Prince of Cats “a hip-hop retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” is too simplistic. Wimberly goes beyond retelling, he reinvents and recreates. Like the DJs and graffiti artists he references, Wimberly draws on his influences and builds a new story from his favorite pieces. In this case the blend is Shakespearean language, hip hop braggadocio, Kurosawa’s samurai, and street art. With these components Wimberly remixes a new tragedy, not of love, but of the inability to love. Wimberly expertly deepens Shakespeare’s timeless story by exploring Tybalt: the titular Prince of Cats.
Prince of Cats wears its references proudly. Basquiat’s SAMO tags decorate Wimberly’s Brooklyn. Sampson and Gregory get into a bloody sword fight on the subway, and then eat takoyaki in a gentrified Brooklyn sushi restaurant. At the masquerade ball (a block party) Tybalt and Juliet are a strong presence dressed as Michael Jackson and Wonder Woman.
Members of both houses fight with katanas (Mercuctio symbolically stands apart with a kopesh), but marking territory through graffiti runs as the strongest theme for the power struggle as Montague yellow, and Capulet red war over wall-space.
In an example of how Wimberly expands on Shakespeare’s original, the previously unseen, Petruchio is re-imagined in the guise of “King of Style” Kase 2, complete with a missing right arm, and his death becomes a central motivation. Wimberly also gives voice the Romeo’s first love, Rosalyn, expanding her character and adding depth to the whole.
Throughout, Wimberly combines Shakespeare’s language from Romeo and Juliet with his own Shakespeare-inspired inventions, infused with urban vernacular while maintaining iambic pentameter. This helps Prince of Cats read as more than just homage, but as a companion to the original. Tybalt’s story runs alongside the main narrative that we all know, dipping in and out through his interactions with Juliet, Romeo, and members of both houses.
While Romeo struggles to find love, Tybalt struggles to make his mark on society. He is desperate in his attempts for recognition, boldly declaring his desire to maintain Capulet honor at all costs. This is, however, a cover for his deeply broken worldview as Rosalyn exposes in Act 4, saying:
with those for whom you say you risk death
you would preserve thy life
and nurture the happiness of those around you
In reading Prince of Cats if found myself falling in love with Romeo and Juliet all over again. I wanted to go back and re-read the play, to watch the film, to find a production to see. Wimberly is a masterful DJ here, sampling from his most loved art forms to create a new work that is simultaneously a love letter to his influences and a wholly new and vibrant work. Prince of Cats is not a replacement, or a retelling. It is an addition to the original mythology, providing context, background, and new perspective.
With regard to teaching, Prince of Cats is extremely rich. It could easily serve as a prelude to Romeo and Juliet or as a lesson in perspective after reading the original play. In terms of character, Tybalt experiences events of the main story in a very different way than Romeo, and in terms of authorship, Wimberly emphasizes themes that are more subtle in Shakespeare’s original. It would be incredible to use both texts and run a comparison of Romeo’s and Tybalt’s abilities to cope with their environments as a look into how at-risk youth either escape, or are entrapped by their surroundings. Alternately one could explore how Shakespeare’s background informed his lens, while Wimberly’s experiences encourage a different focus.
English classes often use Romeo and Juliet to explore themes of love, conflict, and revenge, but students get easily tripped up by language and the difficulty of reading a play without seeing production. To this end, Prince of Cats can serve as a strong hook, allowing students access through hip-hop’s visual imagery, while retaining the Shakespearean linguistic syntax, and vocabulary. Through a willingness to invent and remix, Wimberly’s Prince of Cats is a piece that can stand proudly alongside Shakespeare’s original work.