“There was no worse fate than my current state,” raps Henry “Box” Brown (played by Dice Raw, associated with the Roots) in Henry Box Brown: A Hip Hop Musical. Brown would know; as a slave in 1840s Virginia, he worked with Quaker abolitionists in Philadelphia to have himself mailed in a three-foot-by-two-foot box from Richmond to Philly. He arrived 27 hours later — shipped by wagon, train, and steamboat — alive and a free man.
Dice Raw’s potent musical adaption of Brown’s story sets his tale in our time. Here, a young boy, Bobby (Ibn Mayes), puts off writing a paper for school. While working, he falls asleep and is visited by the Narrator (Tobi Gadison), who takes him back in time to report on the life of Henry “Box” Brown. The show draws on Brown’s autobiography to relate his early years (born into slavery), the auction of his brothers, his marriage to another slave, Nancy (Jamie Knight), and their eventual separation when she’s sold into further bondage in North Carolina.
Philip Brown’s book tempers the painful history with some lighter moments (which Mayes skillfully delivers), and Dice Raw’s own lyrics on “the Box” add humor at the start of his journey to freedom in a packing crate. The rapper powers his lyrics with the forceful, humane exasperation of a man longing for freedom. Seth Barmash’s compositions mix string-heavy classical sound with electronic beats in a pulsating score straddling two musical centuries.
In softer moments (such as “Autumn Wind”), Dice Raw pairs in song with Knight, whose strong vocals enchant during R&B numbers. (Jenkins’ harmonizing, by contrast, sounds flat and nasal.) West Chester native Gina Zo contributes the only solo not sung by Dice Raw himself. In “Waiting for a Box,” she delivers the sweet, simple lyrics with earnest intensity.
Mostly, the show serves as a vehicle for Dice Raw, whose legal name is Karl Jenkins. Gadison adds a healthy dose of charisma (when he’s not flubbing his lines), and Nick Mangino plays a paper villain as the slave master/auctioneer. Between his rap numbers, Dice Raw sits on a box (presumably writing his character’s autobiography).
StoneDog Studios’ set design provides ample space for choreographer India Hyman’s blend of versatile break dancing and African dance. Her contributions ignite an emotional current of longing and suffering that fleshes out the communal misery of Dice Raw’s verse. Better sound design would have rendered the music more audible, rather than the muffled blend I heard at Saturday’s performance.
Henry Box Brown runs 100 minutes – enough time to outline the heroic story of a former slave who spent more than a day in a crate en route to freedom, but maybe not enough for the fullness of story, intrigue, or characterization to do that story justice.
Henry Box Brown: A Hip Hop Musical
Through Feb 17 at Bonnell Auditorium, Community College of Philadelphia, 1700 Spring Garden St. Tickets: $30-$50. Information: HenryBoxBrownMusical.com.