Hip-Hop Themed ‘The Realness’ Opens Social Distancing Outdoor Season at The Hangar (Review)
The word “challenge” begins and ends with the letters that spell “change.” To change our position in the world – to get out of the rut of what is easy and take a new, bumpier path – is to risk making mistakes.
The Hangar Theater is not playing it safe as evidenced by its 2021 five-room summer program and its new open-air theater space. Responding to Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, they have taken on the challenge of change with deliberate and thoughtful choices to ensure the safety of the public and representation of the community at large – not just the season’s subscribers, but the larger multicultural population of Ithaca, NY.
‘Don’t play it safe’ means Hangar doesn’t start its season with a well-known, popular, and audience-favorite musical like ‘Once’ or ‘Sweeney Todd’ – the second and third shows on the program – but opens up to instead with “The Realness”, a throwback to the late 1990s through the eyes of its black protagonist who documents hip-hop culture and its influence on society. Billed as “another break beat piece”, it is written by Idris Goodwin, playwright, poet / performer and essayist. The show premiered in March 2016 at the Merrimack Repertory Theater,
“The Realness” is part of a Goodwin break beat sequence. According to the playwright, the term described “A rhythmic musical loop, born from the” decomposed “sections of funk, soul, disco, jazz and rock records … to which the MCs rhyme, … a dynamic crossroads of limbs and language … the foundation of the hip jumping performance. Inspired by August Wilson’s Cycle of the Century – ten pieces on the experience of blacks in the 20th century – Goodwin was inspired to create a cycle of his own: “Break Beat’s pieces explore the effect of hip hop on the American polycultural character of the past 40 years. They merge traditional theatrical tropes with those of hip hop music and performance. “
Directed by Kyle Haden, “The Realness” begins in 1996 and is told through the eyes of TO (Damon J. Gillespie), an eighteen year old who bursts on stage with his own narrative rhythm: “I got out of the burbs and landed in the stomach … I was urban renewed. A longtime hip hop fan, he views his escape from a predominantly white suburb to a city college as a chance to immerse himself in a culture he previously viewed as a visitor. “I had arrived, I was there to tell stories,” he explains. “College was just the catalyst. It was not the dream.
For him, the city is “not a melting pot. Call it an urban buffet ”- a buffet he can’t wait to taste. He listens to the conversations around him and compares the lives of average city dwellers to those of the overachieving freshmen who populate his classes: “The people I go to school with might be AP warriors, but these people here are real.” . “
One night at a club, a female MC (Angelica Santiago) appears on stage, and TO finds her goal: “By the time I saw Prima swinging that mic, I was done.” But instead of the typical “meet cute” they argue over Tupac’s job. He finds out that she is the girlfriend of rapper Lord Style (Rasell Holt), swears to break up the two, and poses as a hip hop reporter launching a new magazine, hoping to interview Prima for the cover. The play follows TO as he tries to introduce his journalism teacher (Kiziana Jean-Louis) to the idea of writing about hip hop, his quest for Prima, and the impact of two pivotal events that rocked the world. of hip hop that year: the deaths of Tupac and the Notorious BIG
The ideas behind “The Realness” are complimentary – placing hip hop’s influence on late 1990s culture in its proper context – but in the same way that Wilson’s 10-game cycle has stronger elements and weaker, one has the impression that the game does not represent the best of Goodwin’s work. The story arc is predictable, the characters two-dimensional, and TO’s instant obsession with Prima occurs too quickly without believable build-up. For the most part, the actors elevate their roles. Santiago delivers a willful performance, rooting Prima in the practical sensibility one expects from a young woman who supports her extended Puerto Rican family while lending her dignity as she dreams of fending for herself. Holt’s Lord Style is a believable rising star, pouty and petulant one moment, taking over the room with his fiery rhymes the next. Jean-Louis bounces between roles, embodying the journalism professor with a weary “seen it all” and a club DJ with authority and cutting edge. As Roy – a kid from the Prima neighborhood who suffers from a stutter but kills audiences when he takes the stage as a rapper – and in various other roles, Nicholas Caycedo is on point, revealing himself to be an actor in incisive character.
Their performance makes it more difficult to assess the work of Gillespie who seemed to have a night’s rest. Charming, childish and sweet, with an eerie facial resemblance to a young Tom Hanks, Gillespie’s TO was not able to overpower the stage or the audience as effectively as his cast mates; on a scale of 1 to 10, he operated between 2 and 5 while the rest delivered between 6 and 9. My theater companion, herself a stage artist but not an actress, noticed a change in energy after having tripped twice at the start; she felt he wasn’t able to regain his concentration. Either way, Gillespie’s theater credits indicate he’s got what it takes for the role; maybe it was just the opening night nervousness on an outdoor stage with the threat of rain in the forecast.
Steve TenEyck’s set design conveyed a cheerful vibe with the show’s title sprayed in graffiti style on the back wall, the urban yet playful colors, and his lighting design was equally appealing. Music director and sound designer Shammy Dee crafted an audio landscape that captured both the city environment and the club scene. The only faux pas was in the suits: every outfit was too new and clean, too crisp, with visibly unworn shoes and jeans – Prima’s nylon and fleece jacket with his LL Bean logo was the biggest Aie. In addition, the items did not appear to be accurate for the period. Although these are small details, they broke the “voluntary suspension of disbelief” that is demanded of the audience in the theater.
But as it was said at the beginning, CHA-NGE tightens the word “challenge” and Hangar Theater deserves credit for taking significant steps towards greater equity at all levels. At the start of the show, General Manager RJ Levine and Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky acknowledged the theater’s occupation of Indigenous Peoples’ land under the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and explained how the new venue’s seating system addresses concerns of Covid-19 theater goers. With sufficient space between rows and seated patrons, and an outdoor ticket office and concession area, almost all of the functions of the Hangar Theater interior space have been moved to the exterior behind the building – with the exception of theater toilets which can be accessed by patrons wearing masks. Even the virtual program includes the cast and crew’s favorite pronouns, and on the website this extends to Hangar staff and board members as well. These efforts are remarkable and applauded.
Regarding sensitivity, as the Hangar Theater is actively working towards full inclusion, it is important to cite an issue that I completely ignored but was caught up with by my theater mate. I enjoyed the character of Roy, the stuttering but flawless onstage rapper, as did the audience, but my friend – a disabled artist and disability advocate – said, “This is disabled pornography. When you have a disabled character who magically transforms, that’s a trope – and it hurts the disabled community. His observation opened my eyes. When she explained it like that, I understood it: the disappearance of Roy’s “flaws” suggests that he is better “normal” – without stuttering – on stage, and impaired in his everyday life. For any organization promoting inclusion, diversity and acceptance, disability awareness must be part of the change process.
Outdoor theater is new at the Hangar, so a word of warning. The outside seats are nicely designed but hard in the back, and after an hour I felt it. For your comfort, bring a seat cushion – insect repellant too if you want full protection. The Hangar Theater advises you to bring rain gear – ponchos, rain jackets, but no umbrellas – in case of a light downpour. Their FAQs on outdoor venues say, “Most of the time the show will go on and depending on the severity of the weather will be presented as planned,” which means it’s best to be prepared.
What: Outdoor show “The Realness: Another Break Beat Play” presented by the Hangar Theater.
Or: Hangar Theater, 801 Taughannock Blvd, Ithaca, NY
Cost: $ 18 to $ 41 for a single ticket. Click here for tickets.
Family guide: High school and more
Crosses: June 26. For more information: 607-273-ARTS or Click here.
CNY Theater Guide 2021/2022