Friday, July 10, 2020

A "break beat play" helps Fonseca Theatre Company break back into Pandemic World

FTC's "Hype Man": Verb and Pinnacle lay it on the line with beat support from Peep One.
The cover of the trim program of Fonseca Theatre Company's return to live productions carries an intriguing graphic.

 The illustration gets at a main source of tension in the play, "Hype Man" by Idris Goodwin, with performances through July 26. A hand stretches toward us and toward a handheld microphone: Is the hand grasping or releasing? Is this a gesture reaching for relevance and amplification or is it a mic drop? Desperation or triumph?

The hip-hop culture of assembling sound material — stealing, tweaking or borrowing it, with creativity and personal testiimony the catalyst — necessarily prioritizes a reputation for authenticity.  But where does identity come into conflict with authenticity? How well can you "represent" if the goal of acquiring and holding onto public attention, expanding a coterie into a mass following, remains uppermost?

Pinnacle (Grant Byrne) is a white rapper with ingrained loyalty to the genre in which he's inevitably an outsider. He's the artistic soul of a group also including a proud, troubled African-American known as Verb, the play's title character (Aaron "Gritty" Grinter). A hype man projects and points up the main rap, exciting the audience, so the partnership is essential. Providing the out-front duo with equally essential rhythmic and melodic foundations is a producer known as Peep One (Paige Neely). A genius of "beats," technically astute and also a hip-hop devotee, she's conflicted by her mixed heritage and sensitive to the genre's marginalization of women.

The performances sizzle with a blend of bravado and anxiety at an energy level that rarely dips, and then only when it needs to. The sound design is especially vivid, and the rapid-fire dialogue is amazingly well-articulated and passionately delivered. An upside-down American flag, with Jasper Johns-style smudging, makes for an effective backdrop, signaling the nation's current distress.

At one point, there's a tight bit of satire directed at symphony orchestras. It reinforces the show's emphasis on the collaborative nature of the arts; otherwise I didn't quite catch its dramatic relevance. Spearheaded by Verb, the ensemble passage questions the high pay of classical musicians under contract who may contribute a couple of cymbal crashes at the end of the piece. I've heard this sort of thing before: Compensation per note for the "bang gang" seems absurdly high compared to, say, violin section players.

I must speak up for my community here: In symphonic music, the function of hype man is liberally passed around. Often it may fall to percussionists. I'll never forget an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performance of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F. There's a climactic slow-down in the third movement, topped by a gong smash in splendid isolation. But this time, the extra player hired for the pops gig missed his cue. Conductor Erich Kunzel raised his arm, and...nothing. No hype man. It was as if the rapper had his enviable Gershwin ride, exquisitely detailed, with hood scoops and custom wheels, parked at the curb all ready to go — with its tires slashed.

There's history involved in every line of endeavor, and it never becomes irrelevant. Verb at one point lifts up the hype-man progenitor of Bobby Byrd, whose "Get on up!" kept introducing James Brown's lines "Stay on the scene like a sex machine." Verb's past troubles, from which he was released several times by Pinnacle, plus his sometimes needling curiosity about Peep One's background, all play a part in his anxiety. So history is inevitably pertinent, even in such a now-focused music as hip-hop. Is Pinnacle just an ambitious sort-of ally, or a bro all the way? That's the challenge posed by his reluctance to go political.

Pushed by a new police shooting to let his smoldering rage surface, Verb surges past the internal spats that keep roiling the collaborators — all of it under Daniel A. Martin's directorial control — to honor the latest victim publicly, imperiling Pinnacle's notion of what success in their field requires. This one is a storybook atrocity: A 17-year-old kid, speeding toward the hospital to visit his ailing grandmother, winds up pursued by a fleet of police cars, then shot 18 times. Kill and overkill, again.

This is the new Grimm's: the wolf waylaying Little Red Riding Hood, and wheedling from her how to find Granny, whom he intends to devour.  The wolf thus wants to control present and past. In the same way, oblivion is a requirement to maintain the dismissive predatory narrative that goes "Racism is dead." That's why the current protests thrust forward a hype-man call of "Say the name!" and the ongoing response elaborates upon "George Floyd!"  with a slew of other martyr names.

With swift finality, the actors move high and low around the stage, their gestures and spontaneous shouts shading over into break beats and rhymes. The basis for moving forward together becomes clear to three young people trying to blend skills and inspiration as the creative juices flow. There's a constant struggle to stay unified amid the temptations of splintering and looking for greener pastures,  resistance to rivals' piracy, and eventually breaking through instead of breaking up.

The dream is that ultimate mic drop, but by the end of the 75-minute conjuring of "Hype Man," the hand in the program brochure looks to be the claw of supremely focused effort, memorializing urban lives and events and taking momentary comfort in its ability to keep reaching.

[Photo: Ben Rose/The Identity Complex] 

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