BWW Review: THE REALNESS: A BREAK BEAT PLAY in World Premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre
The Realness: A Break Beat Play
Written by Idris Goodwin, Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg; Scenic Designer, Lee Savage; Costume Designer, Anne Kennedy; Lighting Designer, Brian J. Lilienthal; Sound Designer, Joshua Horvath; Production Stage Manager, Casey L. Hagwood; Producer, Emily Ruddock
CAST (in order of appearance): Terrell Donnell Sledge, Diomargy Nuñez, Joy Hooper, Jessie Prez, Segun Akande
Performances through April 10 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
Merrimack Repertory Theatre seems to be in the business of championing new works these days and continues on that track with the world premiere of Idris Goodwin's The Realness: A Break Beat Play. Written as a followup to his 2012 How We Got On, this second break beat play is a love story set in the world of hip-hop, exploring one young man's search for authenticity and identity when he moves from the suburbs to the urban environment. The narrator, college student T.O., hopes to immerse himself in the culture of the hip-hop music world, but learns important life lessons from a no-nonsense Journalism professor and from being tossed around on the rocky shoals of love.
Set designer Lee Savage and sound designer Josh Horvath immerse the audience in the world of the play with a giant wall of audio speakers on the stage, constantly pumping out a beat which is vital to the story. The underscore is the breath and the lifeblood of The Realness, ensuring that the audience understands that the denizens of this community can no more be separated from the beat than they could survive without water and air. It defines them and their culture; it is the language they use to communicate with each other, to connect with those who get it and set them apart from those who do not. Whether the words are intelligent or intelligible, simple or muffled, what comes across loud and clear is that the medium is the message, and those who control the medium speak for their generation.
Although I am not generally a fan of the liberal use of narration when there are perfectly good actors on the stage to show us what's happening, Goodwin balances the show and tell well. Brian J. Lilienthal's lighting design helps to delineate which is which, using footlights to cast tall shadows on the rear wall when we are being told the story, and switching to more natural lighting from above when scenes are played out. Terrell Donnell Sledge (T.O.) is engaging and charismatic in the lead role and his monologues help us to know his character as they move the story forward.
When T.O. meets Prima (Diomargy Nuñez), a talented and beautiful MC, he attempts to get close to her by interviewing her for his nonexistent hip-hop magazine. In fact, T.O. uses her story to write a paper for the Journalism class that he is dangerously close to failing. He is encouraged by Professor Brown (Joy Hooper) when he writes the truth, but gets in trouble with Prima for co-opting her life story and weaving a web of lies. Prima's friend and fellow hip-hop artist Lord Style (Segun Akande) is distrustful of T.O. from the beginning and the latter does not endear himself when he pursues Prima. Only Roy, a neighborhood rapper and childhood friend of Prima, sees T.O.'s good intentions for what they are, stemming from his dual obsessions with the hip-hop culture and Prima.
Goodwin sets The Realness in the mid-1990s, a volatile period in hip-hop history. The deaths of major star rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. bookend the play and receive special mention as notable events in the lives of these characters. Each and every member of the cast gives a profound performance, allowing us to feel the impact when they learn of the deaths, or the concern when Prima's family must relocate from their home, as well as the pride and confidence when the rappers spin their rhymes. The playwright's use of the beat and the raps as the structure of the play draws the audience into the culture's embrace, showing it for what it is, allowing us to experience a world that we may not normally inhabit. If I felt like a stranger in a strange land going in, I came out with a greater appreciation for the authenticity of it.
Photo credit: Meghan Moore ( Terrell Donnell Sledge, Diomargy Nuñez)