Issue: 2016-12-21, PHOTO: by courtesy of Sébastien Heins
Sébastien Heins will perform his one-man show, Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera, January 6 and 7 at the Yukon Arts Centre
It started when Sébastien Heins was a student at the National Theatre School in Montréal, tasked with creating a 15-minute piece that addressed a burning personal question.
But when Nancy Palk, of Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre, put her hands on his shoulders, tilted her head and looked into his eyes approvingly, Heins knew he was onto something more than a school assignment.
"If this show is revealing something about me that's touching people and moving them, then I have to pursue it," he decided.
The burning personal question Heins originally set out to address came from the fact that he was an only child, and grew up wondering what it would be like to have a brother or sister.
"I always wanted a sibling," he says. "I always wondered which one our parents would love more, which would get more girls, which would pass away first."
The pursuit of those questions resulted in a one-person show, now 70 minutes long, called Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera, which will play at the Yukon Arts Centre, on Friday, January 6 and Saturday, January 7, beginning at 8:00 p.m..
Written entirely in rhyme and using a musical pastiche of hip-hip, R & B, funk and gospel, it spans more than four decades and puts Heins through his paces using the stage technique known as vocal masque.
"It's a very liberating show to do, and it asks so much of me," he says. "It makes me sweat more than most workouts, but I feel like I've gone somewhere with the audience."
The story line concerns twin brothers who grew up poor in Montréal before hitting wild success in the musical world. The older (by two minutes) brother is a scrapper and a rapper. His younger, smoother sibling is better with the ladies and prefers R & B.
Everything changes when they crash their Maserati on a freeway, with a tragic result that leaves one of the brothers to ponder some of life's heavier questions.
The son of a Jamaican mother and a German father who travelled extensively in Europe and shared an obsession with France, Heins believes he was named after the Rue de Saint-Sébastien in Paris, where they once lived.
Now 27, the writer and actor discovered a love of dancing in Grade 7, when he was a stammering kid who had trouble expressing himself in words.
"I never felt cool when I talked, but I felt cool when I danced. Hip-hop was my escape from politeness into coolness."
As he got older, he says, he learned to listen critically and appreciate the poetry in what he calls "an extremely diverse" musical genre.
"These weren't just club songs about going to a club and meeting a girl," he says.
Although his show is billed as a Hip Hopera, Heins prefers to call it hip-hop theatre that uses music and precise physicality to tell a story.
"To me, story is King. The physical specificity is Queen."
As he attempts to "humanize people who spent their whole lives building up walls and armour and persona," he also touches on such diverse themes as the incarceration rate for black males, brotherly love, and how pop culture affects relationships.
Heins has already performed Brotherhood a few dozen times in Toronto, and twice in New York City. In February, he will take it to Mumbai, India, a city that he says has an "exploding" hip-hop scene.
Three days after he returns, he will pack up and head for Stratford, Ontario, where he will spend the summer performing in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, and Sheridan's School for Scandal.
Without hip-hop, R & B, or a stammer.