Though it’s probably impossible to pinpoint exactly the moment hip-hop emerged, it’s widely agreed that 1977 was the year. So let’s go with that quasi-fact, and note that as of 2017 the musical genre is 40 years old and therefore approaching middle-age—if not already awash in it.
Yet, a work such as NSangou Njikam’s Syncing Ink arrives at The Flea Theater as still one of very few examples of stage hip-hop treatments. Which makes a certain amount of sense, since rock music had already appropriated the airwaves long before rock musicals timidly peeked out loudly from that side of the footlights.
But not only is Syncing Ink hip-hop in play form, it’s about hip-hoppers in a poetry class at Langston Hughes High School. The first-act Harlem-Renaissance-poet-referencing locale, the program sheet further vouchsafes, is a “prestigious suburban school.” So this isn’t a poor neighborhood setting but one where students of a certain privilege, who’ve mastered the art of hip-hop, vie with each other for rapping mastery under demandingly strutting hip-hop instructor The Baba (Adesola Osakalumi).
Into The Baba’s classroom—populated by self-important Jamal (Nuri Hazzard), sly Ice Cold (Elisha Lawson), spunky Sweet Tea (Kara Young) and foxy Mona Lisa (McKenzie Frye)—comes Gordon (Njikam himself). He’s arrived reluctantly because he’d like to learn how to “rhyme” but fears he has no talent for it.
And there you have the script’s suspense: Will the bland-named Gordon find his hip-hop tongue at Langston Hughes or, come act two, at Mecca University, to which all the participating students have progressed. Mecca is where Professor White (Hazzard) and Professor Black (Osakalumi) preside—Professor White, representing traditional literature, and Professor Black, representing new literature, competing for student loyalty.
What won’t be revealed here is whether Gordon ultimately prevails over Jamal, who’s always lording his kingliness over Gordon’s “bitch-assness.” Mainly, the outcome won’t be revealed, because the resolution is too obvious to waste time on.
Talk about rigged voting, but it’s the getting there that’s the Syncing Ink thing, and the process involves all sorts of theatrical effects carried out not in the round but in the square. Okay, to be precise it’s in the round, too, since a large circle is outlined on the square floor area.
To music provided by The Mutha (DJ Reborn), standing resplendently in a box above the playing area, the cast members spout abundant challenge hip-hop, often melting into Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio’s tough choreographic patterns that show off their movement prowess—prowess that’s extensive and impressive.
Perhaps this is the place to explain that each of the characters is standing in for a god (fire, wind, et cetera) having to do with the religion of the Orishas, familiar to some in the practice of Santeria, if I have it correctly.
Therefore, Synching Ink, with Gordon fighting for maturity, is Njikam offering a male coming-of-age tale. As such and since coming-of-age tales exist no matter what the spiritual belief, Njikam’s opus, with its occasional comic accents and, like much hip-hop, running far longer than it needs to, can be viewed as universal—all of it taking place pretty much within that all-encompassing circle of life.
And there’s no question that when it comes to life, Syncing Ink is full of the stuff. It’s so spirited that it rouses audience to various responses. At the performance I attended, two young women in the front row of one of the four surrounding sections did a good deal of hand-jiving. Other ticket buyers waved their arms and stamped their feet. (While waiting for the house doors to open, Fleas staffers had drilled them in the practices.)
As for this non-waving-non-stamping reviewer, I admired many of the Syncing Ink elements. Riccardo Hernandez’s spare set, Kevin Rigon’s lighting and Justin Ellington’s sound were enhancing, as were Claudia Brown’s costumes. (Sweet Tea gets to wear a patchwork leather jacket I particularly coveted.) I certainly liked poets Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks being quoted.
Which brings us to poets and rhyme. There is an ironic wrinkle to a play in which a character is supposedly learning to “rhyme.” As practiced, much of hip-hop isn’t rhyming. It’s off-rhyming. Traditional rhyming means using words that sound exactly alike. But “earth” doesn’t rhyme with “Smurf.” “Up” doesn’t rhyme with “what.” Those paired words, to get academic about it, represent not rhyming but assonance, i.e. similar vowel sounds.
Well, how do you like that? Those mocking Gordon for his persistent inability to rhyme are themselves not always rhyming. They’re part of today’s rarely acknowledged redefinition of the word “rhyme” as a practice known as hip-hop “rhyming.”
Another Syncing Ink facet to consider is that the play takes place in two classrooms where students express themselves in argot. That’s to say, their hip-hop exercises include standard obscenities that the teachers never question. Yes, the best hip-hop reflects the language of the street, but the teachers never get around to exploring that aspect. That today’s speech patterns could be thought of as an unfortunate degradation of language is a lecture for another time and simply won’t be delivered here and now.