The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, and, though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the population, they comprised 56 percent of the inmate population in the U.S. The NAACP has documented and reported these statistics.
You wouldn’t think this would be something to sing about, but then again you’re not Dice Raw, the five-time Grammy nominated rapper whose hip-hop musical, “The Last Jimmy,” will be performed at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami this weekend.
“The Last Jimmy,” takes its factual themes from “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander’s New York Times bestselling book that posits that the nation’s patterns of law enforcement – especially through the War on Drugs – has led to the largest mass incarceration in American history, along with the disenfranchisement of an enormous segment of the black population.
But although the show’s framework is built upon factual information, Raw, a member of the legendary Roots (which gained fame as Jimmy Fallon’s house band), uses it as a springboard to weave a story that relies on all of the fundamental elements of hip-hop culture and traditional theater: dance, acting, live music and singing.
In both its relevance and entertainment value, “The Last Jimmy” is a perfect choice for the Arsht Center, says Ellen Rusconi, senior director of programming.
“We’re always interested in engaging artists whose work is relevant to our community. In “The Last Jimmy,” Dice Raw addresses the American justice system and the ways in which the court system has impacted communities, particularly black men,” she says.“Dice is a gifted storyteller and writes great music, and 'The Last Jimmy' manages to be both entertaining and thought-provoking,” she added.
According to Raw, “The Last Jimmy” had its birth as a short music presentation, which he performed in 2013.
“Apple had asked me to perform in one of their stores. I had one of my white friends dress up in a suit, and my other friends dressed in prison jump suits and everybody liked it, so I thought to myself, 'How can I expand on this,' and I decided to do it as a musical. My partner (Philip S. Brown) had worked at Disney, and is a theater director, so we came up with this concept.”
Disney/BET writer and The Shipley School Theater Director Brown wrote the story, while Raw wrote the music and lyrics. In addition to Brown and Raw (who plays the main character “Jimmy,”) the rest of the team includesaward-winning choreographer and founder of Pure Movement Dance Company, Rennie Harris, and Ozzie Jones, nationally and internationally acclaimed award-winning director and interim artistic director of the Freedom Theater.
Set in the future, the musical explores the decisions facing “the last Jimmy,” who is the last African American man to be incarcerated, but who is now going to be faced with a myriad of choices upon his release.
“Jimmy has to decide whether he wants to be involved in the prison system, or whether he wants to do something else with his life,” says Raw, adding, “We can write our own narrative, and not be what the movies, or what you see on TV, or the media says we are.”
But it isn’t only the impact of incarceration on the black man that the show explores, it’s also the societal repercussions of these policies as well.
“In addition to exploring mass incarceration, the disenfranchising of a people, and police brutality, you also have the family disconnect that happens when fathers and husbands are incarcerated, and women discover there aren’t enough men to marry or raise their families,” he says.
“The whole system is messed up and it affects everybody. I know a Jewish businessman who made a mistake and he was locked up for five years. He disappeared –nobody knew where he was,” Raw says.
Raw is especially pleased the show will play in Miami, where it should resonate with audiences here, he says.
“Miami’s incarceration rate is well above the national average, and, although sounds surprising, Latina women are incarcerated at the same rate as black men; both at a 400 percent higher rate than any other nationality,” he notes.
“Also, Miami has a huge crime culture, a huge drug culture, and in some ways crime is looked on as cool, so it’s important that these questions are addressed here, in this city,” he says.
Above all, Miami should be ready for some provocative theater, says Raw, adding, “After all, this isn’t 'CATS.' "
“The Last Jimmy" will be performed Friday, Jan. 12 and Saturday, Jan. 13 at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, Fla., 33132. Tickets are $25. Call 305-949-6722, or www.arshtcenter.org.