Arts and Culture

Sure, “it’s hard to talk about race.”

More pertinent for Idris Goodwin’s “Hype Man: A Break Beat Play,” now on the Actors Theatre stage, race is hard to talk about in live drama. Subjects like how to treat trauma and grieving, the generational poverty caused by the effects of fiscal policy, and the violence stemming from unconscious bias slips right by us because didactics don’t work onstage. It’s only good when a playwright writes characters who are indivisible from thematic content, finds the right moment and places them in it to make the invisible visible. Then an audience can engage.

Fortunately, Goodwin hits a balance between character and crusade. He navigates with the same elan hip hop fans gets when syllabic savants like Busta Rhymes or Twista spit verses on hits like Break Ya Neck or Slow Jamz. Here, Actors Theatre’s audience reaps the benefits.

Though, perhaps given the race of Pinnacle (Shane Kenyon), the white rapper and front man standing in front of titular hype man Verb (Mykele Deville), the more apt comparison would be the oh-so-problematic Eminem.

Regardless of which virtuosic rapper one might use for a comparison when contemplating Goodwin’s skills, the playwright’s own past in the hip hop world clearly gives him a deep well of truth from which to draw when creating the portrait of Pinnacle, Verb, and the beat maker Peep One (Angelica Santiago). That portrait functions on many levels before one even gets to the meaty discourse on race.

“Hype Man” is a picture of a black man working through therapy to understand the trauma of his upbringing; a meditation on how creativity, friendship and power interplay; an inspection of what it means to be a creative woman in a room full of men; a frustrating glimpse of white privilege in action; and an insight into the often tense creative process of trying to craft hip hop hits.

Tensions in the already-intense mix of personal dynamics begin to increase when news comes down that another young black man has been gunned down by officers of the peace.

That’s when things get racial. Pinnacle is white, Verb is black, Peep One is mixed, and their divergent responses to an unarmed black kid getting killed by police brings tension that threatens to rip the group apart on the eve of their success.

The difficulty of talking about race doesn’t come from simple concepts or straightforward hatred, but the delicate interplay of each person’s inner life, concept of themself and how that conforms or conflicts with someone else’s lived experience within the larger context of history and power structures. The relationships and history of the trio in Hype Man provide the perfect context for that discussion to be difficult because it requires deep mining of problems that lay under Pinnacle and Verb’s relationship, which is one of true friendship, love and connection.

Deville and Kenyon both prove themselves masters of playing complex emotions on their faces while also embodying the masculine desperation of trying to hide any emotion but anger.

Santiago, conversely, manages to create a compelling character and a strong statement on the gender norms of emotion by controlling and downplaying the rage on her face. Santiago’s Peep One knows that angry dudes get to be righteous, wicked, vengeful or any other of an array of loud emotional subcategories, but angry women are most often relegated to the obligatory diagnosis of hysteria, especially in the world of music.

Given the high intensity setting and stakes,“Hype Man” could easily turn into a quagmire of  overacting, but the ensemble cast, guided by director Jess McLeod, regulates and fine tunes moments spoken and unspoken, letting energy build, then quashing it to create tension which then builds to the next emotional explosion.

Many an otherwise-excellent fictional work depicting a second art form has been stifled or outright destroyed by an inability to bring the heat in that second art form; i.e. there is nothing worse than a “great” fictional poet whose poetry sucks.

Here again Goodwin’s hip hop history comes in handy, so that however problematic or privileged Pinnacle may be, he’s got bars, courtesy of Goodwin.

Ironically, though Deville plays a hype man in the play, he’s actually an excellent front man, and you can stream his music on Spotify.

Textually “Hype Man” also requires sick beats, proficiently provided here by Louisville-based music collective Rhythm, Science, Sound.  Given that solid foundation, the ensemble cast is then able to successfully put the music onstage in a performance that sells the greatness of the emerging group. That greatness is key to the stakes in this play. The audience can believe that Pinnacle’s crew has everything to win, and everything to lose.

Early in “Hype Man,” Verb picks up a microphone and asks, “Can I kick it?”

Yes, “Hype Man” can.

Hype Man continues at Actors Theatre, 316 West Main St., until October 13. For tickets and times, find Actors Theatre online, or call their box office at (502) 584-1205. Look for Goodwin’s play “Ghost” currently onstage with Stage One Family Theatre, and keep your eyes peeled for his forthcoming book of poetry “Can I Kick It.”