By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
It’s 1988, and, Yo! MTV raps! We’re in the flyover states, the middle of nowhere, with the disappearing rust and wheat belts making way for the biggest malls in America. With How We Got On, Portland Playhouse and playwright Idris Goodwin are taking us on a journey through history, hip-hop, and a coming-of-age for three young black kids on the verge of adulthood.
The big beautiful magnet of hustle and bustle known as the City is far off. But for most kids of that era it was the place they wanted to be, and they went there by any means necessary, through their minds, curiosity and imagination. Book stores were few and far between, but the dial tone of the radio and cable television was everywhere. The silver neat-edged boombox tuned in, shouted back, and with two cassette decks could play, record and repeat. Music wasn’t just on the radio, but on the television: artists made little movies, music videos, that put their voices and hip, hyped-up icons in every room of the house. The kids ate it up and wanted more. In a series of composed boxes outlined with a few thin trees and concrete, the mall was the place to plug in and buy the electric-looking images they saw on their home screens. Shoes, shirts, hats, attitude and style could be played out, recorded and repeated. Why all the work? Suburbia was an adult world. Kids wanted their own thing, their own identity, and they wanted something new that had their meaning. Rap and hip-hop were bleeding through the cultural cracks and making their way to the Midwest. Life would never be the same.
Our guide on this journey is the Selector, graciously played by Ithica Tell. She’s the statuesque fair wise feminine energy of history. She’ll let you in and have your say as you become part of history, part of the story, but the Selector will put you in your proper place. The Selector choses the soundtrack, the back track that informs the lyrics that Hank, Julian and Luann will play out. She paints the backgrounds of former chapters and shows the heavy shoulders that all creative work builds upon. In a softly lit sound booth, she stands between two turntables and a DJ mixer.
Hank, played by Joe Gibson, has a nice trim fade haircut, tan cargo shorts and a polo shirt. He’s somewhere between what his respectable academic father wants and a teenager. He tries his hand at a few things, aiming to be good at something, searching for a reputation and a craft. Hank is solid, and while at first he seems a cardboard cutout, he takes out a little notebook of his writing and the determination to dream makes him a winner. He’s down with the new facts and fiction: Hank is going to be a rap star. He met a kid from the city at basketball camp, Julian (Chip Sherman), who is also enamored by hip-hop. But Julian won’t play with Hank. They set down for a rap battle at the local Colosseum, the mall. Julian is looking good, new Jordans on, and spits a fire of words that humble Hank back into his youthful insecurity. Hank loses the battle and his bike as winner’s prize, but doesn’t realize he won, because Hank wrote his rhymes. Hank is the spirit of the play.
How We Got On’s author, Idris Goodwin, is a poet, essayist, playwright, and rapper himself. He weaves complex backstories through his characters and puts the lived-through black cultural experience onto the stage. Goodwin, like the Selector, brings artistic and historical vignettes into dialogue. Some phrases jump up off street from the mouths of real people. Others sing like a less angry Amiri Baraka poem. Some are the words that families share, both loving and destroying.
Eventually, it is the battleground that brings Hank and Julian together. Julian is the voice, and with Hank’s rhymes, they have a chance to break out of white suburbia and express themselves through a fresh and meaningful dialogue. Their collaboration depends on ingenuity, and, true to the times, they mess around and pause-dub with recording on a double cassette deck boom box to make a mixed tape. Julian, who desperately wants to be seen, becomes Vicious. Hank, born John Henry, feeds him the lines.
There’s someone else, too in this static middle ground, Luann (Ashley Nicole Williams). She’s in a Catholic school, with all the realistic touches of rebellion – the long and primped-up hair with headband and waist-knotted cardigan, the remix of a proper uniform. Luann is the daughter of an NBA star, who like so many city athletes, moved his family from the city to a safer suburbia. While her father made his way up the ladder through hoop dreams, she’s caught the hip-hop bug. She plays all the records: Big Daddy Kane, 2 Live Crew, not a Beastie Boy track in sight. Luann is the spirit. Hank and Luann form a bond, and since Hank is solid and open, they begin to share and collaborate on a new sound.
Julian, Hank and Luann have their share of troubles outside of being black teenagers in the Midwest. Home life is demanding. As the play progresses, Julian begins to show his temper, the anger and scars from his hurt. His mother lives in the city and his alcoholic abusive father barely puts a roof over his head. Julian wants desperately to be loved, to be considered, to be taken seriously; and a piece of him knows that he’ll have to create that on his own.
Ithica Tell’s Selector does a beautiful job of physically and vocally switching from being the conscience of history to a washed-up, heartless, immature drunk of a dad, and mutates again, to a middle-class, respectable demeanor and accent when she becomes Hank’s chastising father. It would be easy to assume from his recent acting successes that Chip Sherman would take over the stage with his chameleon veracity. But Tell’s attention to detail and Joe Gibson’s inner authenticity work as an ensemble to round each other out. Sherman is particularly good in the tragic moments: he’s part kid who needs a hug ,and a storm of rage at the injustice of not being wanted. How We Got On is not just a play, not just a musical, but a hybrid, like rap. The cast is very physical, imitating the postures and poses that hip-hop polished during that era: the back-to-back sway, holding the head of a mic, the high-pitched sound of sneakers on a linoleum floor. Ashley Nicole Williams is a fireball of energy, reminiscent of the rapper Ladybug Mecca. The choreography adds little touches of humor and accurately captures the stylized details that capture late ’80s hip-hop.
How We Got On is a fun and poignant look at the little slices of experience in middle America. The production captures the time with all its angst and potential. If you want to revisit or need a hands-on guide to one of the stories of hip-hop’s home evolution, Goodwin and Portland Playhouse have a story to tell you.
How We Got On continues at Portland Playhouse through October 25. Ticket and schedule information here.