An Image of Paige Hernandez in Paige in Full

Math and theatre are two things many Americans aren’t too keen on, but add to the mixture a little hip hop and you’ve got Paige Hernandez—teacher, dancer, playwright, actress and performer of the one-woman show Paige in Full. Hernandez’s show tells the story of a multiethnic (Cuban, Chinese and Afro-American) girl growing up in Baltimore with an overwhelming love for hip hop. The effect that the live mixing and dance routines has on the one-hour show is uniquely gripping, and the way Hernandez has integrated  hip hop into her professional life should serve as a model for others to emulate.

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SORAYA MEMBRENO: You speak a lot about hip hop education. What exactly is that for you and what about it prompts you to be such a vocal advocate of the method for teachers?

PAIGE HERNANDEZ: When I was first starting out as a teacher, I was naturally using hip hop—using different call and responses, making sure I had instrumental hip hop playing in the background, things like that.  I found that not only did I quickly become the “cool” teacher, obviously, but I was able to get my students to focus more. I could relate more to my students and they had more fun doing different activities. Then other teachers noticed it and they were like, “What do you have that we don’t have?” I said, “I guess it’s hip hop.” I started going on a quest from there and leading different workshops and seminars and professional development for teachers to incorporate hip hop in the classroom. Workshops with high school students involve pieces with lots of choreographed parts or we work on projecting and singing with middle school students. Everything’s got art built into it. That’s the common thread.

MEMBRENO: I hear you have a “math dance” that you teach to little kids. How did that come about?

HERNANDEZ: I thought of it one day when we were focusing on three- to five-year-olds, trying to get them to count in sequence. A lot of them have English as a second language. So, this is a hard concept for them to grasp. I thought of a way where I could have them do a call and response and repeat after me while I did different movements where each number represents a different movement. It has lots of rhyme in it and call and response. They don’t have to know it necessarily. They just have to follow me or repeat after me and then, the next thing you know, they’re counting! Just knowing the sequence of the song helps them remember the sequence of the numbers. So, that’s great.

MEMBRENO: You grew up in Baltimore, right around D.C. and the D.C. hip hop scene. Would you say that it influenced you or your style in any way?

HERNANDEZ: The Baltimore and the D.C. scenes are very different to me. In Baltimore, when I was growing up in the 80s, we were really big on that Baltimore club music. It’s funny because now in one of the songs I’m using in one of my pieces, “Lost in the World” by Kanye West, it’s totally a B-more club beat! So, I grew up with music like that and lots of old school hip hop. And D.C., to us, was always like vocal-heavy, lots of percussion in the music. And there were little, teeny rivalries. So, we didn’t really associate ourselves with D.C. like that. But once I came down to D.C. to go to school, I began to embrace it. I actually really enjoy a lot of Go-Go and different things that the area has to offer. I would definitely say that growing up in Baltimore and growing up around music—music was just in my household period—had a lot to do with how I am now, what I do, what I wear and how I talk.

MEMBRENO: You’re currently working on “Paige in Full,” a one-woman show described as “a B-girl’s visual mixtape.” “Visual mixtape” is not something you hear every day. How did that concept develop?

HERNANDEZ: I was writing a play and it was very traditional—a beginning, middle, and end with a plot and, you know, all that jazz. I just was struggling with it. I didn’t love it. Then one day, I had a breakthrough and thought, “I need to make it like a mixtape.” I love mixtapes. So,  I decided that instead of telling a story just in monologue form—from beginning to end—I would use poetry, I would use dancing, music and we’d also have some visual effects with projections and a lot of onstage deejaying and basically cut it out of order. It’s  specific to love, family, hip hop and growing up—set to different tracks so that what you end up seeing is a visual mixtape. It presents bunch of different styles and feelings grouped together thematically. What’s also nice about the show being in a mixtape format is that I can do individual “tracks,” which can run ten to thirty minutes, or I can do the full show.

MEMBRENO: Obviously referring to something as a mixtape calls serious attention to the music. The music is incorporated with live mixing, right? How does this affect the consistency of the show from one performance to the next?

HERNANDEZ: I would say that we strive to do the same show, the same sequence, but because it’s a live show it changes nightly anyway. And there’s a deejay set incorporated within the show and that changes. We make the audience play name that vamp or guess that tune. Things like that change, but the actual material and the stories stick. If I do have a younger audience, though, I’ll change some of the tracks so I won’t do some of the mature ones that have cursing or suggestive language. For the most part, it’s the same show every night.

MEMBRENO: Hip hop plays heavily into the storyline of “Paige in Full.” Were there any moments of tension between the ways in which women are typically presented in hip hop and what you were trying to do with the music?

HERNANDEZ: I wouldn’t say there’s been a real moment of tension, but I definitely have encountered people who just aren’t familiar with hip hop or afraid of hip hop in the show. They seriously think they’ll need ear plugs or that there’ll be booty shaking somehow in the show, but then they are suddenly surprised when they find out it’s just a universal story told through the vehicle of hip hop. And I think that’s what makes hip hop such a great thing because even though it’s a communal culture it’s still very individualized. I think that when you see the show you realize that it has nothing to do with the current state of hip hop or commercialism or anything like that. It’s really an eight-year-old girl in her bedroom who loves the fly girls. And I think people who aren’t fans of the music don’t necessarily get that right away. I know people who hesitated to see the show but were then pleasantly surprised. That, to me, is really rewarding.

I did it actually in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for an audience that included some Amish. I was just scared shitless. I had no idea of how they were going to take it, and I performed in a classic opera house. Everyone in the audience that night was fifty or older and all white—all of that to say they weren’t at all familiar with hip hop or that aspect of the show and that they lacked the usual audience interaction. I didn’t really know what was going on. Eventually, I just did it the best that I could. After the show, people were in tears and really moved and touched.  I found out that they were listening all along and at the end there was just surprise. It wasn’t what you might think would be the typical hip hop experience. One guy came up to me and said “you call it a visual mixtape but, I call it a quilt.” That signed it in stone—to know that the story is strong enough, it’s universal enough, and that hip hop is just a bonus.

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Headshot of Paige HernandezA native of Baltimore, PAIGE HERNANDEZ is a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts and received a BA in theater and broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. Hernandez has taught throughout the country, to all ages, in all disciplines. She has partnered with many organizations including Wolftrap and Arena Stage, where she was awarded the Thomas Fichandler award for exceptional promise in theater education. Hernandez has performed on many stages including Arena Stage, Folger Theatre, The Kennedy Center, Fulton Theatre, Ohio Theatre and Everyman Theatre among others. As a hip hop education advocate, she has shaped various educational workshops, including Props for Hip Hop at Arena Stage and Keep it Moving at Wolftrap. Both workshops help teachers to understand the fundamentals of hip hop while incorporating the culture into their curriculum. Hernandez has performed her children’s show Havana Hop in elementary schools along the East Coast and she is currently touring her one-woman show, Paige in Full: A B-girl’s Visual Mixtape. For more information and Hernandez and her performance dates, visit www.paigehernandez.com or www.paigeinfull.com.

SORAYA MEMBRENO is a full-time student at the perpetually snow-capped Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts where she is double-majoring in English and Astronomy. Her home is in Managua, Nicaragua though she was born and raised in Miami, Florida where her soft spot for Cuban pastelitos was developed. Heading the spoken word group at Williams, she can be found performing around campus or out on the rugby pitch on any given afternoon.