If you love hip-hop, or if you don’t understand why your kids love hip-hop, “How We Got On” is a primer in a play. Idris Goodwin’s one-act drama set in 1988 unravels the phenomena of the wordplay we call rap.
The story is narrated by the “Selector” (Eryn Victoria), a deejay whose dialogue is laced with the nascent vocabulary – as well as the history – of the then-emerging art form.
The first wave came during the Reagan years, the second under the first Bush. A “battle” is two rappers facing off. Rhymes are composed of alliteration, metaphor and simile, and some are “wack” (subpar). “Rap, hip hop and toast – spirit, body and voice,” sums it up. The words are dropped like bread crumbs to lure us back to the ’80s.
The action takes place on The Hill, which is neither the city nor the country. It’s the sprawling suburbia 30 minutes outside a big Midwestern city. If you write hip-hop in The Hill, urban rappers consider it inauthentic. But the snobby black kids in The Hill think hip-hop is “ghetto.”
Hank, aka John Henry (Devin Clark) is a fledgling rapper who is a better lyricist than performer. Hank’s personality is defined by exuberance, rather than poetic angst. His dream is to win an AKAI MPC, a professional sound system with digital sampling capability.
In this no man’s land of suburbia, hip hoppers find each other. Julian, aka Vic Vicious (Mason ‘Quill’ Parker), is the superior rapper, but he doesn’t write his own rhymes. The third main character is Luann (Genesis Soto), a rich girl who can churn out lyrics on command.
Victoria’s narration is warm and smooth. She presents the genre as an old friend, patiently explaining the nuances. Clark is delightful: His up-close-and-personal interaction with the audience dares us not to like him. Parker, a Winston-Salem State University Poet Laureate in real life, is an excellent performer.
This one-act play premiered at the 2012 Humana Festival of New American Plays. It’s engaging at first, but two-thirds of the way through, the pacing goes slack. One issue is that Luann spends too much of the play on the sidelines. Until her character is verbally unleashed, she is a distraction in her jarring gold pants and popping orange shirt. Once she takes stage, her presence is a welcome addition: She can move, and she can rhyme.
Applause for director Dee Abdullah’s inclusion of dancers Gerard Hazelton and Jarvis Garvin. These two pop in at random interludes with riotous ’80s moves, freestyling robotic slides and floppy wrist gyrations delivered with awesome, goofy grins.
They dance as unself-consciously if no one is watching, and they inject the play with energy each time they take stage. “How We Got On” would benefit greatly from an energetic audience that could absorb and bounce back the enthusiasm of this cast.