by Mike Hoban
“HYPE MAN: A Break Beat Play” – Written by Idris Goodwin; Directed by Shawn LaCount; Music Direction by Kadahj Bennett; Sound Design by Lee Schuna; Lighting Design by Jen Rock; Costume Design by Cassandra Cacoq. Presented by Company One at the Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, South End, Boston through February 24
You don’t have to be a fan of hip-hop to appreciate Company One’s illuminating production of Idris Goodwin’s HYPE MAN: A Break Beat Play, now receiving its world premiere at the Boston Center for Arts. Not only is it one of the best new plays in years, it’s one of the best plays of the 2017-2018 season, period. HYPE MAN takes the age-old dilemma that many artists face, namely, where to draw the line between maintaining artistic integrity and personal beliefs versus chasing fame and fortune, and further juices the story by injecting one of the most politically charged issues facing America today – the shooting of unarmed people of color by police officers.
Pinnacle (Michael Knowlton) is the white front man of a hip hop group that includes African-American hype man Verb (Kadahj Bennett) – who is also Pinnacle’s best friend from childhood – and beat maker Peep One (Rachel Cognata), a light-skinned woman of color. The group is in the rehearsal studio getting ready for a breakthrough gig on the Tonight Show, when a news flash comes up on their phones that a 17-year-old black kid on the way to visit his dying grandmother had been stopped by the police and fatally shot – 18 times.
While all are shocked, the responses by band members are radically different. “We don’t know the full story though,” Pinnacle offers, but Verb quickly shoots back, “Yeah we do—same as the last one and the one before that—gonna be the same next time!”
Pinnacle, recognizing that the Tonight Show appearance is the band’s big break, wants to get back to the task at hand. He also insists that they play their hit, “The Boy Shinin’” about overcoming life in the projects to become hip hop stars, while the (understandably) heated Verb thinks it’s time to make a musical statement about the epidemic of police violence. They decide to play the hit on the show, but when Verb rips open his shirt to reveal his “Justice for Jerrod” (the slain teen’s name) t-shirt to a national audience, it sparks a backlash from police unions and conservatives, and unresolved conflicts that have been simmering between the two men for years explode.
Many of those conflicts are not necessarily about race, at least on the surface. Verb has had some lifestyle issues – carrying unregistered guns and getting involved with unsavory hangers-on – that caused him to have to take time off from the band for a while. But he’s addressing it with his therapist, and tells Pinnacle, “I’m onto a whole new level of self-knowledge,” which we later see manifest itself in unexpected ways. Pinnacle is the straight arrow of the two (“Hip hop is my drug”), who grew up in the same neighborhood as Verb, but who fails to see that just growing up in the same socio-economic circumstances (i.e. in the projects on welfare) is not the same as actually being black in America. Conversely, Verb can’t seem to understand why it would bother Pinnacle so deeply when his black friends treat him like “Whitey McWhite-man” – especially when they threaten to kill him for besting one of them in an insult contest.
But there’s a third component to the narrative, one that really elevates this terrific work. Peep One, who appears to be mostly ambivalent about her cultural heritage (she never met her parents), interjects an element into the conversation that is easily forgotten in many discussions about oppression – that many members of oppressed groups operate as oppressors themselves.
So when Verb is expressing his frustration over Pinnacle’s hard line stance against politicizing the band, Peep almost jokingly says to him, “Maybe I need to wear a shirt that says: “Justice for Regina,” referencing a character of a grossly misogynist song that the band once did, and explaining to him that he and Pinnacle haven’t evolved much since. And it’s remarkable how similar Verb’s response is to a white person defending their racist attitudes.
One of the extraordinary things about HYPE MAN is that there’s never a false moment in the play, and we never feel as if we’re being forcibly “enlightened”. The dialogue flows naturally, and never slips into predictable dogma by either side. Playwright Goodwin has an exceptional ear for dialogue, which isn’t surprising given that he is a poet and hip hop artist himself. Director Shawn LaCount elicits three-dimensional portrayals from his talented cast.
As Pinnacle, Michael Knowlton adroitly walks the delicate line of playing a character who is inherently disingenuous (a white guy trying hard to fit into a “black” musical genre and culture) and does so convincingly. Rachel Cognata gives an assured performance as the mature and confident Peep, and Kadahj Bennett (who also served as music director) beautifully conveys Verb’s struggle to transform himself.
If HYPE MAN sounds heavy-handed, it’s not. Granted, this is pretty weighty material, but there is a lot of laughter in the play, especially when the men give each other digs. And the music, whether it’s Peep One laying down some pretty basic tracks or the band fully developed songs, is pretty killer. On the night I saw the show (opening night) the audience was far more diverse than one usually sees in Boston theater, and there was a kind of interactive element to the production that fit in well with the play. See it. For more info, go to: https://companyone.org/production/hype-man-break-beat-play/