Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Hype Man: a break beat play
What exactly is hip hop and how does it differ from rap? The play prompted me to ask this question, and I'm still not sure exactly how to define it. From what I gather, hip hop is more than just a musical genre, it's a culture, a lifestyle. It's not just the music you listen to, it's how you dress, how you talk, maybe how you think. It developed in urban centers and is almost exclusively African-American in origin. (Compare it, for example, to hipster culture, which is primarily white.) Rap is the predominant musical style of hip hop, but not necessarily the only one.
And what is a hype man? It's not a public relations guy. It's the other guy who performs on stage with a rapper. The hype man isn't quick with rhymes, but he backs up the rapper, dances around, does a sort of call-and-response with the rapper, and gets the audience hyped up. His importance is demonstrated in this play by a rap number performed without the hype man on stage, and it's dullsville.
The set-up of the play is that Pinnacle, the white rapper, and Verb, the hype man, have been friends since childhood, having grown up in the same neighborhood and attended the same schools. Now, along with Peep One, the DJ who provides the beats, they are an up-and-coming hip hop act. While rehearsing for a gig on "The Tonight Show," a news item breaks about a black teenager who was shot 18 times by the police after a high-speed chase, even though he had his hands up. Verb insists that they use the "Tonight Show" exposure to make a statement about police brutality against black men, but Pinnacle doesn't want negative publicity just before their big tour.
How this plays out makes for a tight 65-minute one-act play. Except for the somewhat forced rapprochement among the characters at the end, I was very impressed by Goodwin's writing. He captures the still-unreconciled differences between having white skin versus black skin, or being a woman versus being a man, or furthering your career versus doing the right thing.
Frank Taylor Green's directing is faultlesshigh energy all the way. His portrayal of Verb is a powerhouse performance: animated, passionate, angry, even a little sorrowful. Evan Wrons plays Pinnacle, and he does a fine job, considering that this is his first appearance in a play (although he does have experience as a "battle rapper"), though he doesn't have a lot of charisma yet. Addison Flores-Thorpe is good in the underwritten role of Peep One, but seems a little tentative. Could use a little more sass.
I love the set by Genevieve "Evie" Noel and the lighting by her and Kait Distler. It's a brilliant idea to have the back wall of the small performance space covered in old LPs, the records from which early DJs sampled the break beats that MCs could rap over, in the days before you could get a beat just by turning on your computer.
What did I know about hip hop before I saw this play? Not much. I have never gotten into rap music. My aural synapses are not quick enough to keep up with the flow of words. Then again, I'm not supposed to like it. It's the music of a generation younger than mine, and every generation rebels against the music of its elders.
This play, however, made me appreciate its validity as an art form. I learned a lot while being totally entertained and challenged. I'm grateful to Idris Goodwin and Duke City Rep and Frank Green for bringing it to our attention.
Hype Man, through March 10, 2019, at Duke City Repertory Theatre, 2420 Midtown Place NE, Unit D, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00, Sunday at 2:00. Tickets $15 in advance (no service fees online), $18 at the door. Info at dukecityrep.com.