By Ross Haarstad
The Realness by Idris Goodwin; Hangar Theatre, through June 26
He’s a boy from the burbs, she’s a city girl; he’s Black, she’s a Boricua from the barrio; his family’s got money, hers struggles for it. Yet their lives cross in one place: a passion for hip hop.
Two love stories pulse through Idris Goodwin’s The Realness (another break beat play), receiving its regional premiere on the Hangar’s new outdoor stage. First, the romance of T.O. and Prima; second, hip hop culture at large, specifically the fervor of the late 90s and the West Coast vs. East Coast hip hop “wars” centered around the charismatic Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.
Five Black and Brown artists electrify Steve Ten Eyck’s open structure which cannily resurrects urban blight and splendor, splashed with a street-art graffito shouting—The Realness—by artist Jay Stooks. As both Music Director and Sound Designer, Shammy Dee adds pulse and swashes of mood (aided by Ten Eyck’s evocative lighting.) Costume Designer Danielle Peterson’s choices are picture perfect period, while quickly typing the multiple characters.
Our guide to the hip hop nation is one T.O. (“Not Tom!”) who has fled his suburban life to enroll on an urban campus so he can steep himself into the source of his passion. He’s pursuing the real, the roots, the raw material, the always transmuting and emerging style and word born of and remixed in the streets. He’s not a rapper, but he is a fledgling writer who waxes lyrical as he narrates one crucial year in his young life, bracketed from meeting the fierce, alluring Prima at a club the same day Tupac is shot to death, to a rap battle interrupted by the news of Biggie Small’s murder and the drab late winter and spring that follow.
Damon J. Gillespie plays T.O. with laid-back charm and a touch of mischief, floating light-footed through his journey. He catches T.O’s insouciance, head-smart but with a young heart that has yet to learn how far he is from “the realness”, while bumping up against issues of class and cultural tourism. The dilemma, for all T.O.’s passion, is whether he’s an insider or an outsider to this world.
Most of the other main characters have sharper outlines and drives, partly because they belong to the urban poor and working-class looking for their break, partly because playwright Goodwin fashions for them tremendous flights of rap.
Angelica Santiago pours herself into Prima with a ferocious, spiky intensity that can cool and hold calm and in control, then melt into a jealously guarded vulnerability. Her performance is quicksilver and urgent with hope and intermittent melancholy.
As Lord Style, the latest breaking artist and Prima’s ex, Rasell Holt is swagger and opportunity, a touch of paranoia, and a man on the move. Yet there are chinks in Style’s macho armor, and Holt makes the most of these quiet moments, freighted with the realities of his precarious position as a Black man in a violent U.S.A.
Nicholas Caycedo (an Ithaca College alum) and Kiziana Jean-Louis fill out the story playing a raft of DJs, rappers, managers and street folk (Caycedo has a particularly amusing riff as the conspiracy theorizing Camo Man, while Jean-Louis nails an in-charge manager/agent.) Each also get a swing at a main character.
Jean-Louis plays Prof Brown, T.O.’s journalism teacher; while somewhat old school and middle-class, she is also a no-nonsense yet engaged mentor who is determined to whip her student into shape. Jean-Louis gives her a number of shades from implacable task-master to warm counselor.
Caycedo has the endearing role of Roy, amiable neighborhood protector with a huge stammer, whose raps flow with energy, wit and diction. The character pops from the stage, Caycedo endowing him with humor, warmth and magic.
Director Kyle Haden shapes the production at a nice clip, with great attention to shifts in rhythm, intensity and mood. Most importantly, he gives ample space for each actor/character to breathe.