COMPANY ONE THEATRE is in top form as it opens its 19th season with a thrilling 75 minute world premiere: HYPE MAN at the BCA PLAZA. Playwright Idris Goodwin (“How We Got On”) delivers another in his cycle of break beat plays, this one a fresh, bold wholly engrossing musical that uncoils the tensions social, cultural, political that bind and divide an interracial hip-hop group. There’s Peep One (Rachel Cognata), an artist of many colors who mixes the beat after laying it down, Pinnacle (Michael Knowlton), a white rapper and frontman who weaves the words, and Verb (Kadahj Bennett) a black “hype man” who supplies the verbal tweaks, adding texture, resonance, and verve.
The play locates this threesome on the cusp of several breaks: their mainstream debut on TV’s “The Tonight Show” and against breaking news which threatens to break the group up: when an unarmed 17 year old black teen is shot 18 times by police after a high speed chase, each reacts differently, reflecting and refracting the simmering schisms now front and center in year two of the Trumpocalypse.
C1’s Artistic Director Shawn LaCount sleekly directs this daring script and dynamic cast. Goodwin’s incisive script risks the tough questions: what is an artist’s responsibility– to the group? To society? To one’s own race, culture, and personal history in the face of injustice? What role does race play in an evolving culture?
The plays begins in an empty studio and evolves the way a rap might: one by one these characters enter, filling up the empty space, laying down the beat, the words, artists playing, mixing, creating. This cast pulls no punches, cutting loose some of the best music I’ve heard in a theater all season, and inhabiting the thorniest issues. These performances are vibrant and real: Kadahj Bennett’s “Verb” is on fire, sporting “an emotional 6-pack,” the result of a hard won and newly exercised “whole new level of self-knowledge”; Michael Knowlton’s “Pinnacle” walks a fine line between white and black, achingly pulled between pragmatism, ambition, and loyalty; and Rachel Cognata’s “Peep One” sanguinely delivers the feminine/multicultural perspective with grit and gravitas, a counterweight to her male cohorts’ more polarized positions. She is the one who understands how “beats open you up” for better and worse, and calls out the sexism rampant in the male-dominated music world, “a lot of bad stuff creeping in like second hand smoke.”
For all its moral and ethical complexity, the play hits you squarely and clearly where we all live right now– on the edge of painful change, where anger is easy, voices are many, and connection is hard. Company One Theatre and HYPE MAN unwrap and illuminate a track through the turmoil. Best thing onstage now. No Hype. See “HYPE MAN: A BREAK BEAT PLAY” at Company One Theatre through February 24.