I would like to tell you about my Rap and Hip Hop-infused introduction to Idris Goodwin's play "How We Got On," but first, let me share a brief tale of synchronicity.
After attending the Press Opening for Company One's New England Premiere of "How We Got On," my head was full of Rap rhythms and Hip Hop beats. I went home and fell asleep listening to an update on WEEI of the Red Sox loss to the Yankees, then drifted off to a fitful sleep on one of the hottest nights of the year. When I awoke at 6:00 the next morning the radio was still droning in the background. WEEI was broadcasting its weekly Sunday morning segment of Commonwealth Journal, hosted by UMASS Boston Professor Rachel Rubin. Her guest was "SLAM Poetry" winner - poet and film maker Saul Williams. When I realized that Professor Rubin and Mr. Williams were discussing spoken word poetry, rap and hip hop as art forms, I was fully awake and alert. Two quotations from that radio broadcast resonated with me from the previous evening of being exposed to Idris Goodwin's largely autobiographical tale of coming of age in suburban Detroit. Mr. Williams described rap as "a new style of skateboarding for the tongue." What amazing imagery! It described perfectly what I had seen and heard the night before on stage at Boston Center for the Arts during the soul-stirring performance of "How We Got On." And then Ms. Rubin completed the loop between her radio program and last night's performance when she recounted to Mr. Williams how she often dismissed her class at the end of a lecture: "Go home and spend the weekend learning to like something you are not supposed to like!" In this pithy phrase, Ms. Rubin summed up what I had just experienced - my own weekend of learning to like something I am not supposed to like.
My recent journey towards better understanding and appreciating Rap and Hip Hop began a few weeks ago with the SpeakEasy production of "In the Heights," which uses Latino rap as the foundation for its story telling. Prior to attending that show, my view of Rap and Hip Hop were pretty typical of most white guys of my generation. I grew up on Rock and Roll and R and B and still love these genres today. Rap seemed like so much noise and angry ranting and totally lacking in artistry or nuance. As I watched the protagonists in "How We Got On," begin to experiment with Rap and Hip Hop as part of their journey of self-understanding and self-expression, the pieces began to fall into place for me, and I found myself clapping and weaving in sympathy with their raps and with their individual journeys.
Mr. Goodwin has written a very simple and very moving tale of three teenagers of color living in the suburbs in the Hills above Detroit in 1988 and coming to grips with their relationships with their families, with their compatriots in the city, with one another, with their emerging self-images and with their attempts at self-expression. Julian (Jared Brown), Luann (Cloteal Horne) and Hank (Kadahj Bennett) make an interesting triangle of cooperation and competition. Sitting above the action is The Selector (Miranda Craigwell) a DJ who functions both as Greek Chorus commenting on the action taking place in the lives of the protagonists, and also giving voice to the fears and admonitions of the respective parents. The role of Selector is beautifully written, and flawlessly performed by Ms. Craigwell. She does not miss a beat in moving the action forward - or at times causing the action to repeat in scratched out loops of sounds or dialogue to reinforce a point. Her use of her manicured hands to demonstrate "attitude" is magical, and her voicing of the strained "Bourgie" concerns and mannerisms of the upwardly mobile parents is spot on!
Each of the three actors portraying the nascent rappers brings a special magic to the role. Bennett as Hank comes across as the book-smart and linguistically sophisticated leg of the triangle, but his stage presence in the "Battle of the Bands" leaves more than a little something to be desired. His over-sized glasses scream "Nerd," and help to establish his character. Brown as Julian comes across initially as brash and full of bravura, but with little substance from which to draw in writing his own raps. So Julian and Hank team up as a writing and performing duo. The two actors are perfect as they play off of one another - alternating between confidence, doubt, assurance and despair. Adding spice to this sauce is Ms. Horne as Luann, a female rapper who wants to break into the closed boys' world of rap. The complex relationships that emerge among the three young artists drive the rest of the story.
The set by Janie E. Howland is a series of boxes filled with mixed tape cartridges that are back-lit - a wonderful visual reminder that this is a story not only about coming of age but of making and recording art. The boxes or blocks also serve as metaphors for the attempt by each character to break out of boxes of expectation that have been set for them. The blocks may also signify the city blocks that separate them in their suburban cocoon from the very different life on the streets of Detroit.
The production is craftily helmed by Summer L. Williams as Director. She elicits from each member of the cast a performance worth remembering. Audience response was enthusiastic, with much clapping along in rhythm to the raps. The audience was quite diverse, and it was clear from the universal response that this play and its message is able to transcend categories of race, age, gender or socio-economic background.
This production will play through August 17. Whether or not you are a fan of Rap or Hip Hop, I encourage you to see this excellent show. You may end up "learning to like something you are not supposed to like!"
Directed by Summer L. Williams
July 19 – August 17, 2013
BCA Plaza Theatre
Full Price: $20-$38
Pay-What-You-Can Performances ($6 min):
BOSTON CENTER FOR THE ARTS
539 Tremont Street
South End, Boston, MA
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Box Office: Phone: 617.933.8600
Walk-up: Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts,
527 Tremont St.
OR Boston University Theatre Box Office,
264 Huntington Ave.
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