BWW Reviews: Throwback Time in Company One's HOW WE GOT ON
When it comes to 1980s hip hop and the growing popularity of rap, I am a little out of my league. It is not necessarily a topic on which I am well versed, or one to which I am particularly drawn. So when I heard about How We Got On, Company One's new play by Idris Goodwin about that very subject, I assumed that I was not the target audience, and thought it might, at most, be a fun night out. So I went into the production with an open mind, ready to be educated on a brand new topic. And educated I was.
First and foremost, this is not a play for any specific audience. This is a play for absolutely everyone: as they say in the show, "rich people, poor, handsome people, ugly, citizens, immigrants, everybody". And I was captivated from the very first minute. Following fifteen-year-old Hank, the show addresses the growth of rap and hip hop in the 1980s, particularly in a suburban environment where it had not yet been accepted. Hank and his friends, Julian and Luann, struggle with stage fright, competition, unsupportive parental figures, friendship, acceptance and identity throughout the piece, all of which is masterfully DJed by the Selector, a current day disk jockey who narrates and soundtracks the entire show.
From the moment I walked into the theatre, I knew that I was going to like what I saw. The set design, by Janiee Howland, is breathtaking, comprised mostly of elaborate light boxes, constructed from cassette tapes. When lit from the inside, the boxes take on different patterns and colors, and give the room a very warm, soulful vibe. In the distance, there is a skyline that spells the word "city", and every once in awhile, black lights and grid work light up the space, making the city appear farther and farther away. All of the design elements were strong, as a period piece demands, and I never doubted for a second that I had been transported back to the eighties, with neon colors, giant boom boxes, high top sneakers, and lots of denim. It was a very visually stimulating piece.
Performance wise, I couldn't have asked for a more energetic, passionate cast. Kadahj Bennett is adorably genuine as Hank and expertly balances moments of the quirkiest laugh-out-loud humor and poignant self discovery. JarEd Brown as Julian commands the stage with his charm, but delivers some of the most heartbreaking moments of the piece when speaking to his disapproving father. Cloteal Horne as Luann is bubbly and sweet, but will blow you away with her rapping skills. And Miranda Craigwell as Selector is beautifully present, switching gracefully back and forth between narrator and all the supporting roles, which she manages to jump in and out of and portray convincingly.
There were moments in the beginning where I thought things were over exaggerated or even over acted, but as the piece continued, I realized it was all very stylistic, representing the ages of the characters, the extremity of the time period, and the high stakes of the topic in the characters' point of view. Director Summer L. Williams does a beautiful job of knowing this piece's place and never tries to make it something it isn't. For example, while the serious topics of discrimination and substance abuse are present and touched upon, they are not brought into the forefront, because that isn't what the show is about. These issues are prevalent in the character's lives, but aren't what the major conflict is concerning, so they exist and play a part but don't domineer the entire production. The audience is meant to laugh at the show and really relish in the innocence and humor of it. Williams keeps this show honest and real, allowing the audience to enjoy themselves and really let go.
The most impressive aspect of the show, which credits Williams, the performers and the brilliant timing of the stage management team, was the incorporation of music and rhythm. Obviously, the show is about hip hop and rap, so there were many different instances of characters performing, but what was less expected was the integration of beats and rhythms in the normal dialogue. Everything moved as if there was a pulse, and it all had a feel of music. The entire piece was more like one big song, which was amazing to see, hear, and experience.
As a rule, Company One is a company that takes risks. You aren't going to see your standard, predictable plays here, but works that push through boundaries of topic and visuals. How We Got On blends genres and mediums, invites audience into the story, and covers a topic not often considered. And it does so in a beautiful, energetic, and completely inclusive way.
Written by Idris Goodwin; Directed by Summer L. Williams; Set Design by Janiee Howland; Sound Design by Edward Young; Lighting Design by James McNamara; Costume Design by Amanda Maciel Antunes; Properties Design by Vic Yambao; Production Stage Managed by Keta R. Newborn; Assistant Stage Managed by Marc Franklin and Elena Livak; Dramaturgy by Tyler Monroe
CAST: Kadahj Bennett, JarEd Brown, Miranda Craigwell, and Cloteal Horne
How We Got On is playing at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts through August 17. For more information about the production and Company One, visit their website www.companyone.org
PHOTO CREDIT: www.companyone.org