Tuesday, October 10, 2017

83 (2017-2018): Review: SYNCING INK (Seen October 9, 2017)

“The Best of Rhymes; The Worst of Rhymes”

If Niegel Smith intended to make a splash with his first production as the Flea’s new artistic director, replacing Jim Simpson, he couldn’t have made a louder one than with Nsangou Njikam’s hip hop musical Syncing Ink. The night I went, the audience of mostly 20 and 30 somethings was as fully engaged as any I’ve ever seen, short of a sports event.

The show—which had its world premiere at Houston’s famed Alley Theatre in February and is a product of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group—is nearly two hours and 40 minutes long and stuffed with crude banalities. That doesn't stop if from dancing through the night with such ebullience and talent that nothing could be easier than to forgive its various faults. The headline above (paraphrased from Njikam’s script) suggests you have to take the good with the bad. But the good far outweighs the bad in Syncing Ink.

Syncing Ink—the first production in the Sam, the new Flea’s black box venue named for the late talent agent Sam Cohn—is a coming of age tale about Gordon (Njikam, the playwright), seeking to fulfill his destiny as a rapper. There’s a bunch of Yoruba ritual stuff thrown in to connect his story to his ancestral roots and the African diaspora; some high school characters even wear simplified African makeup and the music sometimes reveals a West African influence.
DJ Reborn. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Overseeing all is the Muthuh (DJ Reborn), a DJ in the guise of Oludumare, “the supreme creator,” standing atop a platform overlooking the empty space, a large circle painted on its floor, its four sides surrounded by the audience. The music she chooses to back the rapping sequences is from artists whose work, the night I went, was so familiar to many they sometimes moved and sang along with it.
Company of Syncing Ink. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gordon, socially awkward, attends Langston Hughes, a middle-class suburban high school, where his poetry teacher, the abundantly alliterative Mr. Wright (Adesola Osakalumi) a.k.a. the Baba, encourages his class to write haiku before they move on to the rhyming difficulties of hip hop. Gordon is overshadowed by rhyme-spitting students with emcee creds.
Kara Young, Nuri Hazzard, McKenzie Frye, Elisha Lawson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s the diminutive sparkplug Sweet Tea (Kara Young), who encourages Gordon; the braggart hip hop master, Jamal (Nuri Hazzard), who challenges him; the crafty Ice Cold (Elisha Lawson), who advises him; and the voluptuous Mona Lisa (McKenzie Frye), who catches his eye. Each also is thought of as the avatar of an African spiritual entity.  (Most actors also play several roles, including Gordon’s parents.) Gordon’s quest to compete against Jamal is hindered by his difficulty in mastering the art of rhyming, a corny playwriting device but one that’s necessary for there to be a second act.

Act Two is a year later, when the students are at Mecca University. The script shifts gears so loudly you can hear them screech with a side plot satirizing a rivalry between two English professors. One is the pompous, British-accented Prof. White (Hazzard), who teaches black and white classical literature;the other is Prof. Black (Osakalumi), a Black Panther-like radical, who mocks the idea of writing anything down, even denigrating “white paper.” Their scenes steal too much time from the plot’s main thrust, Gordon’s training to take on Jamal in a freestyle rapping contest. I’ll let you guess who wins.
Adesola Osakalumi, Nsangou Njikam, Nuri Hazzard. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Technically, the show couldn’t be better. Riccardo Hernandez is credited with the minimalist set design while Kevin Rigdon provides a remarkably inventive lighting scheme that allows the awesomely versatile cast to use little more than a few chairs and hand props to depict varying times, places, and events. Sound designer Justin Ellington does exceptional work, including his collaboration with Rigdon for great fantasy effects, while Claudia Brown’s attention-grabbing costumes make vivacious contributions.

Smith’s staging, combined with the choreography of associate director Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio, is a master class in theatrical creativity; each move and gesture is rhythmically calibrated (much like the recent Clockwork Orange) so that not only the more overtly musical sequences but straight acting scenes are played with perfectly timed precision.
Elisha Lawson, Kara Young, McKenzie Frye, Nsangou Njikam, Nuri Hazzard,Adesola Osakalumi, DJ Reborn. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There are few Off-Broadway ensembles as remarkably multitalented and charismatic as this one. Still, it’s hard not to be especially captivated by Kara Young, a mighty mite with a head of dreads, who can pack more physical, facial, and emotional attitude into a single word than many performers can get out of an entire speech. No need for a crystal ball to see where this ball of fire’s going.
Nsangou Njikam. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It helps to be young and in tune with hip hop music to appreciate the show, which is somewhat more funkily down and dirty than Hamilton, the apex of hip musical theatre genius. One doesn’t often see such enthusiastic audiences at the theatre, responding to every nuance of the complex rhymes, waving their hands or clapping to the beat, stamping their feet, or laughing with abandonment. Older visitors may feel a bit constrained by the palpable reactions of those around them but I guarantee they’ll soon be synched to the joyous spirit of Syncing Ink


Flea Theater
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through October 29