Theater Review: “Hype Man” — Indispensable Viewing

Hype Man is a complex and challenging treatment of race relations in the U.S.– indispensable viewing in these days of Trump.

Hype Man: a break-beat play by Idris Goodwin. Directed by Don Mays. Staged by the Wilbury Theatre Group at 40 Sonoma Court, Providence RI, through November 18.

Helena Tafuri and Jeff Hodge in HYPE MAN: A BREAK-BEAT PLAY at The Wilbury Theatre Group. Photo: Erin X. Smithers.

By Mary Paula Hunter

Hype Man is not only engaging throughout, but resolutely relevant. The play’s exploration of race relations at the intersection of class, friendship, and personal ambition could not be more timely, especially at the end of an election season fraught with racial divisiveness.

Superbly directed by Don Mays, the Wilbury Theatre Group production of Hype Man begins with the promise of success dangled in front of a fledgling hip hop trio: Pinnacle, the white lead rapper; Verb, an African-American Hype Man; and Peep, the mixed-race Beat Master. The homegrown trio is poised to debut on The Tonight Show and dreams of stardom are in the air as the action opens in the rehearsal studio.

The men joke that Peep, always late to rehearsal, will be late again. Their impatience for her arrival is made worse by their bumbling attempts to work the computer. In a nice subversion of stereotypes, the only woman in the group is the tech wizard.

But the relief they feel at her arrival is quickly replaced by the news of yet another police killing of a young African American man. Caught in a traffic jam, Peep, the excellent Helena Tafuri, heard the shots as they were fired, one after the other. She acts out the horror of the experience, contracting her torso again and again — a simple yet ingenious bit of physical theatre.

Things begin to fall apart among the trio when Verb’s simmering anger explodes. His immediate target is Pinnacle who, although obviously sympathetic, prioritizes the group’s potential for success and fame over suggestions of public expressions of outrage and protest. He won’t be sidetracked from reaching the big time; what’s more, he can’t understand how his experience is any different than Verb’s. They both grew up in the midst of the same type of poverty and family disfunction. They drank the same water, rode the same buses, he protests.

Verb and Peep are quick to point out that Pinnacle can leave race behind whenever he chooses. Played by Phoenix Williams, Verb’s performance is powerfully cathartic; alternating between rap and dialogue, he unleashes years of pent up hurt and humiliation. He laments that the latest killing of an African-American man is simply one more in a never-ending list of criminal acts perpetrated by racist white officers.

Peep, younger than her colleagues, was a DACA child. Mixed-race and ambitious, she evolves throughout the play; initially sarcastic and carefree, she turns into a young woman who is willing to show she had been hurt by loss and rejection. In a quietly revealing soliloquy, she describes her passion for the beat as a means to establish a connection to a self she’s lost or buried. And, in a nice touch of irony, Verb refuses to admit his privilege as a male after Peep points out that Hip Hop has long been the province of men.

All three characters are convincingly human. Anxious to make good yet vulnerable, Jeff Hodge conveys Pinnacle’s desperation when he suddenly faces the loss of Verb, his best friend and soul mate. Not only is Verb a link to his past, he’s a tremendously gifted Hype Man. His loss means the end of the past and the future.

When Verb reminds Pinnacle that, after one of their rowdy parties, he got out of jail first, Pinnacle protests. “I got out first because my uncle’s a cop, not because I’m white,” he counters.

Throughout the show’s ninety minutes (there is no intermission), musical interludes serve as a means to diffuse tension as well as to underline the vigorous expressivity of Hip Hop. Clipped, percussive, and brutal in its honesty and cynicism, Hip Hop provides Hype Man with both social commentary and character analysis. Though there are times when its rhythms, wordplay, and music serve as pure escapism.

One despairs for all the characters. Verb has lived through pain and anguish; Pinnacle panics when Verb becomes radicalized, threatening to undermine his chance to escape a life of poverty and numbing jobs. Peep’s struggle to define her identity is undercut, suspended between Verb’s radical move and Pinnacle’s ambition. Hype Man is a complex and challenging treatment of race relations in the U.S.– indispensable viewing in these days of Trump.

Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces

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