Ralf Jean-Pierre’s artistic and personal journey of courage began on a 4,000-mile bicycle tour of the U.S., where he spontaneously performed his one-man Shakespeare act to any plebeian willing to listen—a short-order cook in the back of a restaurant, customers at a waffle house, a bedridden old man in need of a smile, baristas at a coffee shop, kids at a skate park, denizens of a Salvation Army shelter.
Like any hero’s journey, Ralf’s adventure had a catalyst. In 2011, one of his best friends passed away. “Tommy and I talked about everything together,” says Ralf. “What kind of artists we wanted be, what kind of men we wanted to be. We wanted to be the kind of men who gave our all to everything we were doing. We wanted to be the kind of men, who never made decisions based on fear… After Tommy died, I didn’t know if I could hold onto those ideals.”
Rather than shrivel away, Ralf decided that the best way to conquer fear was to set out to do the scariest thing he could think of: travel the U.S., crossing desserts and mountains—all on his bicycle—to perform scenes from Shakespeare’s works. He started in Brooklyn, rode down to Florida, went through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, California, up to Washington, across Oregon, the Midwest, Pennsylvania, New Jersey (to name a few), and back home to Brooklyn.
This was a big leap for Ralf, who had seen very little of the world beyond New York’s five boroughs. “I didn’t even own a bike. I rarely rode one,” he says.
One of the highlights of his trip was performing at the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Claudia Aalick, the festival director, saw Ralf performing on the street one afternoon and invited him to perform at the festival. “It was an unexpected thrill to go from entertaining random crowds in parking lots to hearing the applause of over 200 theater fans.”
Each scene Ralf chose to tackle as a street performer had fear as its central theme—the very thing Ralf was trying to conquer. On the road, “I learned to rely on nothing but courage and grace.” And in doing so, Ralf taught himself to be a passionate street performer. During his yearlong bicycle tour, he stopped in Ruidoso, New Mexico where I live, and he Googled “Shakespeare” and “Ruidoso.” My name and my film Billy Shakespeare popped up. Within moments of receiving a call from him, my husband and I jumped in the car to pick him up for a visit. During his stay, he would spontaneously stop and perform works from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, playing all the characters with great passion. It was as though he became the characters, working on his own psychological torment through their pathology.
After a year on the road, he returned home to Brooklyn. This was a time of reflection, trying to grasp all he had learned on his hero’s journey. The words came to him in lyrics. He wrote the words down and recorded rough hip hop songs to serve as a road map to a full hip-hop road album that tells the tale of his Shakespeare road trip. So far he has lyrics to 13 hip-hop songs to be recorded in San Diego with his music producer Noah Lekas. To raise the $20,000 for studio time, studio musicians, a music engineer, and such, Ralf has put together a Kickstarter campaign, which is his second campaign (the first helped financed part of his bicycle trip).
The future album, titled What Should Be The Fear, marries two sides of his creative personality. The rapper in him, known as Precious Gorgeous, and the Brooklyn actor, known as The Speare Bearer, who performs his one-man Shakespeare street gigs around the country. (Shakespeare geeks might recognize the title from a quote from Hamlet’s chat with Horatio.)
The album will open with Dragon Boy, a portrait of how he viewed himself before his harrowing adventure across the country, a child who was both a parent’s dream and nightmare. Zero Hour tells about the moment he knew he had to get on his bike whether he liked it or not. “Because if I didn’t go out there and face what was waiting for me… it was going to come and find me.” In the comic God’s Fool, Ralf chuckles at how ridiculous he looked on the road. Here was “this poor dirty guy in a bright red helmet and suspenders, trucking a big heavy bike all over with no money. How foolish and quixotic my mission must have seemed, but it is my general philosophy in life to let myself look stupid, to let people laugh if they need to, in service of a greater mission.” Unsure tells about his doubts and fears on the road. “Do I trust this stranger offering to help, do do they mean me harm?… Should I risk getting arrested by performing here?.. Should I become emotionally involved with this woman if I can’t be sure I’ll ever see her again?”
It Burns is about the price that comes with passion. “People talk about wanting to find their “passion” but I don’t think they really understand ramifications of the compulsion to create, to achieve, they aren’t considering what having this kind of “drive” costs.”
The last piece in the album is When a Hero Comes Home. This song is about the day he rode back into Brooklyn. “It was a tough, fearful day for me. I wasn’t sure I belonged there anymore. I was questioning everything. I had fewer answers than when I left. And I seemed to come home quietly. There was no parade like I imagined. I was just left to be alone with these erratic, thoughts I was having, trying to come to terms with what I’d just been through.”
Film director and writer Deborah Voorhees writes reviews, features, and a weekly column Bard in Multimedia that publishes each Monday and covers books, films, recordings, web content, videos, video games, radio, television, and all emerging mediums. Send press releases and comments email@example.com.