MOTT HAVEN — It’s 1978 and Gold Records, a Manhattan-based R&B label, is going nowhere fast.
The record label’s owners, the three Gold brothers, are on the verge of despair when suddenly they receive, like a message in a bottle, a mysterious rap mixtape by an unknown emcee named Kong.
With their secretary, Faye Wellington, the brothers pile into their Volvo and speed to the source of this powerful new sound — the South Bronx.
So begins a new musical theater production of “King Kong” — created for SummerStage, the free outdoor performance series — which transports the classic monster movie from Skull Island to the South Bronx and trades a towering beast for a hip-hop prodigy.
“We do not have a 25-foot-tall gorilla in the show; we have a person,” said Alfred Preisser, the show’s co-creator and a longtime New York theater director. “And he represents genius, a life force, a new consciousness that is going to take over the world.”
The play, which heads to St. Mary’s Park Tuesday evening, wrestles with some weighty issues — the film versions of “King Kong” are notoriously laced with racist undertones, where a black beast preys on a white woman; and the early story of hip-hop, where Jewish record executives, like the fictional Gold brothers, profited from the work of black artists, is considered by some to be a tale of exploitation.
The answer for Preisser and co-creator Randy Weiner, a successful producer of nontraditional theater and cabaret, was to remix all these knotty identity issues by switching the story’s setting and characters, then to pull the rug out from under it all with comedy, said Freedome Bradley, SummerStage's director of theater programs, who helped produced the show.
“It allows you to examine race, sex and gender without wagging your finger,” Bradley said.
Weiner, in particular, drew on his own experiences.
He once worked at Loud Records, a pioneering hip-hop label that released albums by the Wu-Tang Clan and Dead Prez, which happened to be run by “three Jewish guys from Long Island,” Weiner said.
“People who haven’t been there think it’s some epic battle between the Jewish owners and the black artists,” Weiner explained. “But when you’re there, you’re all on the same team, just trying to make a hit record.”
Weiner also, in the early 90s, created a hip-hop remake of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” called “Club 12,” which starred a not-yet-famous Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill.
Because this “King Kong” was designed for SummerStage, where audiences sit outside and may stumble across the shows while passing through the park, the creators decided it must be crammed with music, action and laughs in order to catch and keep the audience’s interest.
That challenge, it turned out, suits both men just fine.
“Sometimes you can’t express yourself honestly in traditional theater,” said Preisser, who was The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s founding artistic director. “There’s a certain kind of etiquette.”
“But theater in the park,” he said, “doesn’t have to be polite.”
"King Kong" will be performed at St. Mary's Park on August 6, 7 and 10 at 8 p.m. The free show is outdoors and contains some adult language.