HYPE MAN

Written by Idris Goodwin
Directed by by Kristan Seemel & Niegel Smith

Whether 19th Century dramatist Christian Friedrich Hebbel would enjoy waving his arms in the air to the infectious hip-hop beats of HYPEMAN is anybody’s guess. But he would certainly have to agree that his most famous maxim, “in a good play, everyone is right”, is adroitly and compassionately embodied in Idris Goodwin’s touching and timely exploration of the rigors of friendship, the power of art and the struggle for social justice.

Rapper Pinnacle (Matt Stango) is on the brink of success. But he feels a little lost without his longtime friend and collaborator Verb (Shakur Tolliver), who‘s gotten into some trouble lately. Thankfully, the hype man (backup rapper and call-and-response leader) has been able to sober up and return to the studio ready to work. Not much music will be made, though, until beatmaker Peep One (Tay Bass), arrives. She’s stuck in traffic, which is not an unusual occurrence. But this time the mess on the highway was caused by a tragic incident. Unarmed teenager Jerrod Davis, in a hurry to help his grandmother with a medical emergency, led the cops on a highspeed chase. When he tried to surrender, he was shot to death by the police. Verb has had enough. There have been far too many Jerrods, and somebody needs to do something. Pinnacle’s reaction is different. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the issues, but right now his focus is on making sure everything goes well when the team travels to New York for a Tonight Show spot.

The performance is a hit, but as the song is wrapping up, Verb throws the audience a curveball by taking of his jacket to reveal a tee shirt with “justice for Jerrod” scrawled on it. Pinnacle finds himself inundated with hateful reactions posted on Twitter and indignant feedback from the law enforcement community. He and Verb, once as close as brothers, find themselves on opposite side of a rift. The hype man’s argument is a valid one: Does the world really need another rap song about girls and money, another braggadocious reboot of the hackneyed street-to-elite-and-rhyming-all-the-way narrative? All the great MC’s spoke truth to power. Why can’t Pinnacle? The rapper’s perspective makes sense, too. The team has struggled in obscurity for years. If they blow it now, they may not get another shot. No one wins if their talents go unrecognized.

Seeing value in both agendas, Peep feels torn. And in her quiet way she, too, has been fighting an uphill battle for equality and inclusion. She loves hip hop, but with all the hypersexualized, even misogynistic, lyrics spat by male rappers, she doesn’t always feel that the genre loves her back. She’s also tired of getting hit on, treated more like a sexual commodity than a colleague. She can’t be sure whether Pinnacle and Verb are part of the solution or of the problem.

As the trio disbands, things take a dark turn. Without his collaborators, Pinnacle is a hollow shell. And Verb, protesting in the streets and clashing with police, wonders if he’s really making a difference. Perhaps the mic is mightier than the picket sign after all. He and Pinnacle would be stronger together than they are apart, and they both know it. But bridging the divide – if it’s even still possible — will take courage and commitment. 

Under Kristan Seemel and Niegel Smith’s economical direction, the show’s quiet beats are as compelling as its high octane musical numbers. Bass, Stango and Tolliver are so deeply in sync as musicians that it would be no surprise to learn thar a record label had signed them on the spot. They bring the same deep connection and joy in performing to the complex, vibrant characters they portray. 

HYPE MAN continues through December 18, 2018 at the Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, New York, NY 10007. Tickets http://theflea.org/for-audiences/current-season/ 

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