Oscar-winner Spike Lee is producing a new spin on the Romeo and Juliet tale by directing a feature adaptation of Ron Wimberly’s graphic novel “Prince of Cats,” which is an 80s hip-hop retelling of the Shakespearean classic.
Prince of Cats is described as a hip-hop take on William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet set in 1980’s Brooklyn. The story will be told through the perspective of Juliet’s hot-headed cousin Tybalt, who navigates Da People’s Republic of Brooklyn with his Capulet brothers. Their crew will try and settle the score with their rival Montagues in underground sword battles.
Lee will work with Wimberly on reworking the script, which was written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, who was once the editor-in-chief of The Source magazine.
Back in 2016, Wimberly explained in an interview why he wanted to weave street and hip-hop elements into the story of Romeo and Juliet. Here’s what he had to say:
Romeo and Juliet is probably the first Shakespeare most people see or read; it’s low hanging fruit as far as Shakespeare goes. When I first read it in high school, I thought it was some bullshit. I didn’t buy the way the kids were acting, but from adulthood, looking back on my youth, it made sense, and that scared me a bit. My imagination was sparked.
Shakespeare adapted many works, including, Romeo and Juliet for himself and his times, so it’s only natural, when adapting his works, to continue in that tradition. I also found some of the formal restraints of Shakespeare’s work were similar to the formal restraints of the artists working in eighties New York; I chose to play with these restraints.
Shakespeare broke apart and sampled older works; hip hop, a post modern narrative art born from the seventies, NY street culture, broke apart and sampled older and contemporary works as well. The emcee, who rhymes or “flows” over music often made of sampled, deconstructed, and repurposed audio, usually adheres to a rigid rhyme structure. Shakespeare too used rhyme and lyric structures in his narrative work. Often, in the hip hop tradition, several emcees will rhyme over the same music, each with unique rhyme structure and delivery; I found this to resonate with the structure Shakespeare used in Romeo and Juliet, where different characters often speak in different types of sonnet-form that somehow inform the particular character.
One of the most important artists in the eighties, Jean Michel Basquiat (you can find some references to his and Al Diaz’ project “SAMO” in Prince of Cats), used sampling and appropriation as well. Basquiat is one of my favorite cartoonists. Sampling is a very important element of Prince of Cats.
I’ve made NY my home since the late 90’s; NY has always carried a mythic quality for me. I wanted to add to that tradition as well. I remember the Reagan eighties, the crack eighties; it was easy for me to draw from. The portions of my life that informed the concept of Prince of Cats took place in the eighties.
Not last and not least, the violent and creative culture that intersected in the streets of eighties NY just vibrated with Romeo and Juliet to me…even the Ballet.
Meanwhile, Lee is currently finishing “Da 5 Bloods,” a film about four Black American Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam, starring Chadwick Boseman. The project is being distributed by Netflix.