“My first encounter with Shakespeare was pretty horrendous,” says GQ, one half of Chicago’s Q Brothers, recalling his teen years struggling with a reading disability that hindered his enjoyment of the Bard.
With brother JQ—the initials stand for Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum—GQ, 37, has spent much of the last 15 years reimagining the works of William Shakespeare through a hip-hop lens, gaining international acclaim with The Bomb-Itty of Errors, Funk It Up About Nothin’ and their most recent “ad-rap-tation,” Othello: The Remix, which makes its Chicago debut this week.
GQ’s opinion of the English scribe changed during his time at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, where he studied acting while pursuing a passion for rap. “At one point something clicked, and I was like, oh my God, this is music. These are musical notes,” GQ says. “That’s when they came together. Something about the inherent musicality of the language of Shakespeare felt so much like the rapping we were doing.”
At Tisch, GQ partnered with three classmates for a project that would become The Bomb-Itty of Errors. An Off Broadway success when it opened in 1999, Bomb-Itty earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for best lyrics and later toured the U.S. and the U.K.
JQ, 33, who transferred to NYU from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, joined the Bomb-Itty team as a DJ before taking on a bigger creative role for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Funk It Up About Nothin’ in 2011. He composes all their music, working with his brother on lyrics. “It’s the best,” JQ says of the partnership. “He’s like my best friend. We’re just doing what we would anyway, but we’re getting paid for it.”
The Chicago natives had been working on Mad Summer Night’s Dream when Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole asked them to represent the U.S. with an adaptation of Othello for London’s Cultural Olympiad last May. The production subsequently played Germany’s Shakespeare Festival in the Neuss Globe and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it was named best musical.
“Our whole thing was, we’re going to take on something new and figure out how to keep our comedy throughout,” GQ says, “but then how to not cheat the real heavy moments of Othello.”
The adaptation casts Othello as a rap king in the vein of Jay-Z, with Cassio as a Vanilla Ice–like performer who signs a record deal before the far more talented underground sensation Iago. Desdemona is an aristocrat’s daughter who follows the trio on tour despite her father’s orders; a groupie, she’s loved Othello since his first mix-tape.
“It has a darker tone,” JQ says of Othello’s music. “There’s a lot more strings in the beats, a lot more minor keys. There was a lot of inspiration from horror movies.”
The brothers’ time on tour showed them a crowd-pleasing production doesn’t need fancy technical flourishes. “That’s one thing we realized: Keep the lights simple, keep the set bare and let the lyrics paint the picture,” JQ says.
“The Qs have an amazing sense of humor,” says Chicago Shakespeare creative producer Rick Boynton, who’s been a guiding presence for the Q Brothers. “And with Othello: The Remix, we’ve found a great balance between a lot of humor and the tragedy of Othello. What they’re doing is fresh. It embraces the art form of hip-hop beautifully, but it doesn’t throw Shakespeare out.”
Othello: The Remix begins performances at Chicago Shakespeare Theater Tuesday 12.