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Commanding Rapt Attention

Alum’s Production Company Takes Hip-Hop to the Stage

By Sala Levin ’10

Paige

Courtesy of Paige Hernandez

Courtesy of Paige Hernandez

Debating public policy and ethical dilemmas may not scream “high entertainment value,” but Paige Hernandez ’02 was a star of sorts in middle school oratory competitions. Her knack for public speaking, someone suggested to her, would also work in theater. That seemed like a good fit for a girl who also wanted to be a Fly Girl, a hip-hop dancer on the TV show “In Living Color.” That, or a b-girl—a break dancer.

As an adult, Hernandez combined those aspirations into B-Fly Entertainment, her D.C.-based production company that specializes in hip-hop-oriented shows and workshops geared to young people. Featuring live music, dialogue delivered in rap-like cadence and a graffiti-inspired aesthetic, her work has traveled internationally, and she’s taught some 10,000 students. Last month, Hernandez landed a spot on Washingtonian’s 40 Under 40 list, and on American Theatre’s list of “6 Theatre Workers You Should Know.”

“In each of these shows you see something that both youth and elderly can enjoy,” says Hernandez. “They almost always pay homage to something that came before, there’s always something educational, and you’ll leave knowing about cultures” like hip-hop, jazz and funk.

B-Fly is a one-woman operation—Hernandez is playwright, director, choreographer and performer. Friends and professional acquaintances help out by performing in her larger ensemble pieces.

The first show Hernandez wrote, “Paige in Full,” based on her youth in Baltimore as a multicultural person finding her voice in hip-hop culture, launched B-Fly with a bang: “I literally had to go into business overnight, because when I took it on tour the first venue was like, ‘What’s your EIN (IRS tax identification) number?’ and I didn’t have one.”

Today, B-Fly’s soon-to-be ten original productions include shows like “The Nayika Project,” in which a sneaker-wearing Hernandez and her collaborator Chitra Kalyandurg MPP ’18, dressed in traditional Indian attire, blend hip-hop dancing with Indian music to offer a contemporary take on Sanskrit poems about Indian heroines.

Hernandez has earned accolades from some powerful players in the D.C. theater scene. Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, told American Theatre that Hernandez is “the complete artistic package…She is a beautifully talented and inspiring artist, and you won’t find a more genuinely lovely person.”

Hernandez, who was part of the inaugural class of Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellows, is now juggling several projects: “Stomping Grounds,” which adds opera to Hernandez’s usual repertoire, will premiere this spring in Upstate New York; she’ll direct the world premiere of “Queens Girl in Africa,” which takes place in the aftermath of Malcolm X’s assassination, in January at D.C.’s Mosaic Theater.

Another project is close to home for Hernandez: She’s developing “Clove,” a piece that will premiere next spring at UMD. Based on interviews and conversations with current students, “Clove” will explore the nature of home, community and belonging. “A clove is the perfect metaphor for community,” says Hernandez. “A clove of garlic, for example, is part of a whole, but when you pull it apart, is it different? Is it just as intense if it doesn’t have all its parts together?”

UMD is more than just a venue to Hernandez—it was a crucial part of her artistic formation. “It felt like I was in such flux, but shifting and changing there really helped me move forward in terms of being open for anything, being flexible and being patient.”

Theatre Professor Scot Reese describes his former student as motivated: “She knew exactly where she wanted to get and how to get there using all the things the school had to offer her.”

Her work is “a complete synthesis of everything that’s happening in the world right now filtered through her own aesthetic being a woman of color,” says Reese. “I’m touched by all my senses when I see her work—it’s very visceral, very immediate.”

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