CLEVELAND -- How do you get a theater largely full of older white people to engage with the struggles and dreams of aspiring hip-hop artists?
Playwright Idris Goodwin has managed the feat by writing a play that brings the audience in on or near the ground floor of hip-hop -- the late 1980s, when the new TV program, "Yo, MTV Raps" suddenly exposed hip-hop music to a wider audience. The timeless passion of teenagers discovering the music of their day quickly bridges generational differences.
The musical style that arguably started in the ravaged Bronx of the 70s, where DJ Kool Herc adapted Jamaican "toasting" -- spoken word boasts and commentaries -- for Bronx street parties, had just made its way to the American suburbs. Teenagers who had never been to the Bronx started to memorize intricate raps and began writing their own.
In the current production of Goodwin's play, "How We Got On" at the Cleveland Playhouse in downtown Cleveland, which runs through November 16, the theater has been transformed into a high school gymnasium, with a DJ stand on a raised stage in the back. Most of the action takes place on the gym floor.
The play is set in a fictional suburb referred to as "The Hill," which may be Detroit but could be any metropolis with a collapsing core. The three main characters, Hank, Julian and Luann are from the right side of the tracks, which happens to be the wrong side for aspiring rappers of the day.
Hank is a black 15-year-old, who excels at writing words, but hasn't developed performance skills. He teams up with Julian, who has the perfect confident swagger for the material, but lacks the ability to produce his own raps. Luann, the daughter of a professional athlete, doesn't fit the mold for hip hop artists of the day, but she can rap and improvise lyrics on the spot.
The evening's proceedings are narrated by a character simply called "Selector," played by actress, Portia, who functions as the show's DJ, working two turntables and a microphone. The Selector also morphs seamlessly into the roles of each of the main characters' parents. The effect is a hip-hop version of the Narrator from the Thornton WIlder play, Our Town. But in this case, the action is literally controlled by Selector, who rocks the turntables back and forth, to rewind, stop or repeat the main characters' actions. The effect is fresh and adds a rhythmic quality to the flow of the play, which runs just 80 minutes with no intermission.
For those who are not big hip hop fans, Hank explains the lure of the the rap boasts that remain a popular feature of modern hip hop, but grew out of the battle rap of the 70s.
"Because everybody, well most people in real life, they take an 'L.' Rich people. Poor. Handsome people. Ugly. Citizens. Immigrants. Everybody takes a loss. But in a rap song, you're the winner, even if you're small, you're fat, even if you're black and you live in The Hill.''
Eric Lockley turns in a solid performance as a somewhat geeky teen back before geekdom was cool. Kim Fischer convincingly brings to life Julian, a teen with a confident exterior who remains lost inside, and Cyndii Johnson creates an ebullient Luann, adding considerable joie de vivre to the role, despite having less dialogue to work with than the other two characters.
Portia, as Selector, slips effortlessly into the roles of the various parents and lends a pervasive musical cadence to the whole performance. She is particularly amusing when she demonstrates how a primitive 80s sampling device worked, using the live actors as samples.
As directed by Jaime Castaneda, "How We Got On" is an engaging coming-of-age story that will fill those who grew up in the 80s with nostalgia, and entertain audiences of any age.