Entertainment » Theatre

How We Got On

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jul 22, 2013
Kadahj Bennett and Jared Brown in ’How We Got On," continuing through Aug. 17 at the BCA
Kadahj Bennett and Jared Brown in ’How We Got On," continuing through Aug. 17 at the BCA   (Source:Comany One)

Idris Goodwin flashes back to 1988 and the dawn of rap and hip-hop as widespread pop culture phenomena. Focusing on two high schoolers growing up in the suburbs (or at least a more affluent section of some unnamed American city, a neighborhood known only as "The Hill"), Goodwin side-steps questions of gangs and gun violence, and focuses on the art: Spinning, scratching, flowing, and engaging in verbal jousts. Company One gives "How We Got On" a good-looking, crisp-sounding New England premiere.

The play, directed by Summer L. Williams, is billed as a "mix tape," and in certain respects that's what it is; there are spots, here and there, in which moments are spun back and repeated a few times, the way a lyrical or musical phrase on vinyl might be repeated. Overseeing the action is a Selector (Miranda Craigwell), who, like a voice from the airwaves, sets out the place and time and narrates; think of her as part DJ and part storyteller.

The two main characters in this tiny cast are Hank (Kadahj Bennett) and Julian (Jared Brown) (both actors make their Company One debut with this production). They play two very different young men who share of love of rap. Hank sees it an emergent art form, and an avenue in which to make a mark; for Julian, it's a way to burn off some swagger.

Their first meeting in the realm of rap takes place at a "battle" in which Hank presents his well-wrought material, which is rooted in the traditions of poetry, but with a timid affect. Julian's stuff isn't nearly as good, but he's a natural showman with charisma to spare. We don't hear his battle rap, but Hank describes it for us:

"He was just rippin' it. Line after line -- crystal clean like a recording. On top of that...he looked very cool the whole time -- like it ain't no thing."

For his part, Julian describes himself so: "I'm sharp with the rhymes. Cut you...lyrically."

But Julian comes to realize that his raps could stand to be sharper, and that's how he and Hank move from rivals to creative collaborators. Or, as the Selector puts it, "Ghostwriting -- one of Hip Hop's best-kept secrets."

Their partnership takes on additional dimensions as Hank pursues a piece of equipment that will allow them to make more professional-sounding demo recordings, and embarks on some rudimentary marketing; at a stroke, Goodwin mocks racist stereotype while reminding us that this is 1988, and before white suburban kids all took rap and hip hop as their own music, sagging trousers and all. Says Hank, "At my job, bagging groceries, if I see somebody that looks like a rap fan."

Goodwin’s play reminds us that the most crucial ingredient is having something to say, and finding a way to say it that speaks to the masses left unsatisfied by the hollow remnants of once-vital forms of expression.

Interjects The Selector, "Any and all black people."

Hank: "I slip the demo in the bag."

The play touches on various subsidiary issues (misogyny and the less-successful arena of woman rappers, early cultural criticism that fails to recognize rap as its own musical and lyrical form), but this is primarily a story about a partnership between two very different, yet complimentary, kinds of young man. (A fourth character, Luann, played by Cloteal Horne, rounds out the cast.)

When their words erupt into full-fledged performance, complete with showy lighting (courtesy of James McNamara, who conjures a dance hall atmosphere on demand) and music (sound designer Ed Young delivers a clean, rich auditory experience), the play erupts into a wilder, more vivid mode of performance.

Janie Howland's set pays homage to the cassette tape, multitudes of which are integrated into the scenic design (and the familiar shape which is used as a painted motif). The performance space looks to be part recording studio. Amanda Antunes gives us costumes that are steeped in the '80s or, in the case of the Selector, carry a strong African influence.

Subtler, but just as vital, is a subtext about cultural identity and assimilation. Should we be surprised that rap took the world by storm? Probably not. Youth possesses energy, ambition and hubris; that in itself isn't enough to make for art.

Goodwin's play reminds us that the most crucial ingredient is having something to say, and finding a way to say it that speaks to the masses left unsatisfied by the hollow remnants of once-vital forms of expression that have subsided into monetized, concrete shells of their earlier selves.

In other words, "How We Got On," while not a terrifically groundbreaking play as such, offers a reminder of how exciting rap once was as a genuinely new and culturally specific musical genre, and does so while giving contemporary theater a jolt. That's cause for celebration.

"How We Got On" runs through Aug. 17 at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. For tickets and more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit BostonTheatreScene.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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