Tuesday, December 4, 2018

125 (2018-2019); Review: HYPE MAN (seen December 3, 2018)

"They Got the Beat"

  I know precious little about the ins and outs or ups and downs of hip-hop. Icons like Dr. Dre. Tupac Shakur, and Notorious B.I.G. are familiar but I have no idea of how they differ from one another artistically. I mention their names because they’re among those dropped in Hype Man, Idris Goodwin’s tight, 75-minute, “break beat play,” rhythmically directed at the Flea Theater by Kristan Seemel and Niegel Smith, about a racially mixed trio of hip-hop artists on the rise. It’s a good fit for what the Flea calls its Color Brave season. 

As used here, the Pete, the smallest of the Flea’s three venues, is little more than a square, white room, with two doors (one to the lobby). An audience of around 50 sits in double rows on two sides, with single rows on the other two sides. Anton Volovsek’s set, representing a rehearsal room, consists of nothing but a black and white area rug, a chair, and an electronic music console. Windows line one wall, which briefly allows outside action to be seen. Sharply lit by Xavier Pierce and provided with spot-on costuming by Sarah Lawrence, Hype Man makes the most of its visual minimalism. 
Matt Stango, Tay Bass, Shakur Tolliver. Photo: Hunter Canning.
 Pinnacle (Matt Stango) is the lead performer, a lanky, white rapper covered in tats, with chains of bling around his neck. The black hype man, who warms up the house, supports the rapper, and occasionally interjects his own words, is Verb (Shakur Tolliver), Pinnacle’s BF since high school. He’s a recovering substance abuser and convict who’s proud of the progress he’s been making.

And the beat maker, who creates the musical and rhythmic underscoring, is the colorfully dressed Peep One (Tay Bass), a young woman who moderates the tensions between the men, partly because of her indeterminate racial identity. (All three actors are members of the Bats, the Flea’s resident company of young actors.)

Goodwin’s ethnically diverse trio is necessary for his treatment of the relationship of the group’s music to issues of racism and social justice. Just as they’re on the brink of a major breakthrough by flying from their unnamed city to New York to appear on “The Tonight Show,” a black teen is shot 18 times by the police following a high-speed chase. 
Matt Stango, Tay Bass. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The young man’s goal is later revealed to have been his urgent desire to reach his ailing grandma at the hospital before she dies. I leave it to you to consider whether that’s a sufficient reason for endangering other people’s lives. On the other hand, 18 bullets?

Verb, burning with indignation at the rash of black men being shot by cops, wants to use the TV appearance to make a statement of support on behalf of the dead boy. Pinnacle, focused on advancing the group’s commercial success, fears that such a public criticism will create a harmful backlash.
Tay Bass. Photo: Hunter Canning.
What follows after Verb, on TV, flashes a white t-shirt on which are written the words “Justice for Jerrod” in red, involves the group’s often argumentative confrontations with the conflict between its professional aspirations and its responsibility to the cause of social justice. Friendships are tested, racial attitudes interrogated, white privilege speared, and the meaning of success questioned.

Goodwin writes taut, colloquial dialogue that sounds natural in the mouths of these streetwise, articulate characters. His lyrics, while sometimes unintelligible when boomed at ear-banging levels through handheld mics, seem much like conventional rap, and probably won’t disappoint hip-hop fans, while the music, by Wendell Hanes, likewise feels authentic.

But, to antediluvian ears like mine, telling one hip-hop song from another is a challenge. And, while I don’t know if what the show presents as how a hip-hop song is created reflects reality, I can note my surprise at seeing the music composed on the spot merely by the beat maker pressing a button or two on a console and everybody accepting the result as perfect. Take that, Cole Porter!
Shakur Tolliver, Matt Stango. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The music and lyrics aren’t especially memorable (although lovers of  such songs may differ) but, in the moment, they’re catchy enough to serve their purpose. In fact, toward the somewhat forced kumbaya ending, they get the audience on its feet to sing along. The lights are bright, the audience small, the mics in your face intrusive, and the pressure to participate enough to get even geezers like me to fake it.

Hype Man is a smartly realized showcase for its three charismatic performers. Each seems true to the world of the play and their individual dreams. And that’s no hype.


Flea Theater/The Pete
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through December 18