I raved about HYPE MAN: a break beat play by Idris Goodwin at its 2018 world premiere directed onstage by Company One’s artistic director Shawn LaCount. Now, as George Floyd haunts and Daunte Wright brings us to flash point again, this urgent piece of theater brings a too familiar tragedy right to our screens and confronts us with the questions of the day: Where do we stand? What are we prepared to do? The plot explores the impact on a trio of hip hop artists’ when their big break collides with breaking news: the police shooting of an unarmed, 17 year-old black youth. In 2021 the stage play has been re-imagined as a virtual co-production at American Repertory Theater’s “Oberon” and has proven both prescient in hindsight and more timely than ever as we struggle en masse with accountability.
The virtual production isn’t immediately better than the original. Co film-directed by John Oluwole ADEkoje and Shawn LaCount, the piece begins with a graphically pumped up music video over opening credits as a musician layers beats and aural texture. Then we meet the characters. It’s slow going at first; choppy edits cutting back and forth between tight shots jar the actors’ rhythms. About 15 minutes in, the camera gets out of our way, loosens up, and flows more seamlessly with the evolving conversation bringing us to the threshold of the widening chasms that separate and threaten to pull this trio apart. Burning questions come to the fore and set their house and the play on fire. The original thrill is there and then some.
The camera doesn’t lie; there isn’t a false note in any of these performances. With each interchange Goodwin’s carefully wound play tightens its grip. Each member of the trio is a beat on a continuum churning up discord in the air around them. There’s Pinnacle (Michael Knowlton) a white rapper and frontman who writes the words. He’s ambitious and doesn’t want to compromise their national debut by taking a controversial stand. At the other end of the spectrum is Verb (Kadahj Bennett) the black “hype man” who vocally embellishes to heighten the excitement and tension. He wants to dive right into the fray and make a statement on national TV. In the middle is Peep One (Rachel Cognata) a young woman of mixed race, who, acknowledging the sexism that taints the male-dominated music industry in which she’s trying to make her way, presides over the mix. She’s the one who lays down the beat and is acutely attuned to the way “beats open you up,” an insight that shines a light on a path forward.
The play and its music is rock solid. I’m glad it can now be seen by a wider audience virtually, and it should be seen as another jumpstart, a way of putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. It’s the wild west out there as we carry our histories into a thicket of shared and conflicting allegiances and responsibilities– personal, political, artistic. Like this trio, we’ve got to figure out how to carry on and make the music.
See “HYPE MAN: a break beat play ” co-presented by American Repertory Theater and Company One ON DEMAND at AmericanRepertoryTheater.org through May 6, 2021!