Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Temples of Lung and Air
Also see Garrett's review of Sister Act
Mr. Smego grew up in North Carolina in a mixed-race home. After being shuffled around the country from one guardian to another and bullied for not acting "white" enough (one of many words he manages to make the audience hear differently before this production is over), he finally found his voice through poetry and rap. He intersperses his personal story with both humorous and sobering history lessons, embracing his insider and his outsider status in the hip-hop aesthetic, and ultimately making a moving case for the power of language, poetry, and hip-hop music in particular to unite a global community.
Mr. Smego is a true artist. The magic he creates with the text he has written is fully matched by the talented use of his vocal chords, switching among many voices, like a DJ mixing and scratching from one record to another. (Occasional beatbox support is provided by Brentton Harrison.) Vivienne Benesch, Producing Artistic Director of PlayMakers Repertory Company, has not exaggerated in saying that Smego has an extraordinary gift to "bend, turn, twist, and massage words in ways that make them feel entirely new again."
Director Joseph Megel has constructed a compelling universe for Mr. Smego. Scenic design by Torry Bend evokes the urban landscape where hip hop flowered, with a concrete enclave that serves as a canvas for all sorts of projections. The focal wall of boom boxes and speakers is a compelling visual metaphor for the diversity of voices and perspectives that have built up this culture. Dominic Abbenante's lighting design and projections transform the space repeatedly, allowing Smego to take us wherever he desires. Sound design, frequently easy to overlook, stands out here as an instrument unto itself; Eric Alexander Collins shapes the space like another musical instrument.
As entertaining as creative wordplay can be, it is the complex messages those words deliver which resonate here. Mr. Smego is not here just to entertain us but to engage us, from the participation he asks (and which the audience willingly gave at the performance I attended) to the ideas he sends with us. What makes one white or black? What makes one American? Who does hip-hop music belong to? Instead of focusing on what may separate us, Kane Smego asks us to focus on what unites us. He uses the ancient magic of words to build a startling new church, a temple of lung and air, and I can only imagine what might happen if everyone took the opportunity to worship here.
PlayMakers Repertory Company's Temples of Lung and Air, through August 26, 2018, at the Kenan Theatre at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC. Tickets start at $10 for students, $10 Late Night, $15 Community Night, $35 General Admission and can be purchased online at www.playmakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529.
Written and Performed by: Kane Smego