The exact dates of the golden age of hip hop are still under debate, but scholars and fans alike agree that 1988 — after Run DMC walked this way but before the Fresh Prince moved to Bel Air — was a watershed year. 1988 belonged to Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, N.W.A and M.C. Lyte. And with the advent of “Yo! MTV Raps,” hip hop no longer belonged to New York and Los Angeles, but to an entire flyover country of young fans hungry for a new beat.
Against that soundtrack, three suburban kids find their voices in Idris Goodwin’s witty and heartfelt coming-of-age play “How We Got On.” Goodwin is a critically-acclaimed performance poet, National Endowment for the Arts and Ford Foundation honoree and the author of the essay collection “These Are the Breaks.”
Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, “How We Got On” premiered Sunday in the Bingham Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays, which runs through April 1.
In the upscale suburbs bordering an unnamed Midwestern city, nerdy Hank (Terrell Donnell Sledge) and cocky Julian (Brian Quijada) battle for the title of most def MC in the mall parking lot. Julian destroys on the mic, but Hank’s words are inventive and slick. They team up, recording beats and rhymes on Hank’s dual-deck boombox and dreaming of the drum machine that could change their lives.
The boys struggle with disapproving fathers and their quest to write “the greatest suburban rap song of all time,” but Hank and Julian don’t begin to realize their potential until a girl named Luann (Deonna Bouye) blindsides them with her hidden talent and teaches the boys how to unlock theirs.
Sledge infuses Hank’s enthusiasm with a thoughtful innocence that perfectly complements Quijada’s simmering bravado, and both actors’ performances capture the exquisite fragility and changeability of adolescence. But when Bouye steps on stage, all wide eyes and sweet smile, she is utterly believable as a hip hop guru, the secret weapon the boys didn’t even know they needed.
Goodwin wisely sidesteps the overly-stylized approach many spoken word artists take when crafting dramatic work while weaving a thoughtful examination of the poetics of hip hop through his nimble dialogue. The kids debate the merits of simile versus metaphor and put various musical theories to the test as they attempt to reconcile the three pillars of art — intuition, technique and swagger. Hank’s research-based experimentation is nothing without Julian’s confident delivery, but it’s the sheer joy of Luann’s improvisational method that allows them to find their true voices.
Tom Tutino’s set is as spare and utilitarian as Hank’s homemade mix tapes, and Connie Furr-Soloman’s costumes are period-perfect, down to Julian’s immaculate Air Jordan high-tops and Luann’s preppy cardigan and tapered plaid pants. But fittingly enough it’s Matt Hubbs’ sound design that takes center stage in this show, cutting and layering great hip hop tracks between and underneath scenes with help from Selector (Crystal Fox), the feisty narrator and DJ who (like all good DJs do) provides the sonic glue that holds the words of Hank, Julian and Luann together.
Hear Erin Keane discuss the play with WFPL’s Todd Mundt: