“Hype Man” — Elevates Our Stories

By Ernest Kearney — One of the celebratory aspects of the theatrical experience is its ability to allow audiences the illusion of participating within any reality, regardless of how alien to their own.  Theatai members may find themselves swayed by the hollow assurances of the weird sisters, shaken by a son discovering his father’s failures, or swell with the defiance of a sister’s choice to bury her brothers.

At its best, theatre spans those vast separations of time and culture revealing how shared struggles makes a community of all humanity. And this is what Idris Goodwin’s Hype Man at The Fountain Theatre, strives to do with its story of a trio of young hip-hop rappers on the very verge of breaking big.

Pinnacle (Chad Addison), the front man, is a rapper in the mold of Eminem, raised by abusive, drug addict parents, the only white family in an impoverished black neighborhood of the inner city.

Throughout his childhood it was the music of performers like the Sugar Hill Gang, Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. that he turned to escape the viciousness and despair surrounding him.  He was joined in this refuge by Verb (Matthew Hancock) whose family lived next door to his, and in sharing this sanctuary the two boys, despite their differences of race, formed a friendship that approached brotherhood.

Over time, Pinnacle began channeling the frustrations and rage of his life into his own stylized raps, with Verb performing alongside as his indispensable hype man.

Far more than a backup singer, the hype man is there to give support and amplification to the rapper’s flow and verse with spontaneous interjections.  He also serves on stage to energize audiences.  He’ll prod them into chants of call and response, conduct them in counterpointing the rapper’s song, do anything that cranks them crazy up.  In rap, the hype man is the Green Hornet’s hip-hopping Kato.

Performing in dump venues, Pinnacle and Verb earn a following that builds slowly till it catches the attention of a music producer who wants to record them.  But he has conditions, foremost of which is that they add to their crew Peep One (Clarissa Thibeaux), an up-and-coming turntablist.

Clarissa Thibeaux / Photo by Ed Krieger (The Fountain Theatre)

She’s a beat maker recruited to work on and off stage with Pinnacle and Verb to power up their beats and delivery and to do it quickly as the producer, scoring a major coup, has managed to book his clients on The Tonight Show; which promises the kind of national exposure that could ensure the success of their up-coming tour.

A studio has been set up where the three musicians have been rehearsing for what they all realize will be the most important performance they’ll ever give.

But the music is not coming, tensions are growing and worst of all this is coming hard on the heels of Verb’s recent arrest on drug charges, which he only avoided jail time for by agreeing to court order counseling where, as Verb puts it, they want him to build up his “emotional six-pack.”

In Pinnacle’s off-handed reply back, that music is “his therapist,” Goodwin seems to give a nod to the power of finding one’s means of creative expression.

Arriving at the studio late, Peep offers the excuse of a stall in the traffic caused by clusters of police cars all speeding someplace with sirens wailing and the lightbars flashing.  Turning to her cell phone she finds the internet erupting in anger and outrage at news reports of an unarmed 17-year-old black youth, pulled over and shot to death by police, who they learned was racing to the local hospital to reach the bedside of his dying grandmother.

Faced with still another needless shooting of a young black man, Verb immediately suggests using their Tonight Show appearance to make a public statement showing support for the victim, but Pinnacle flatly refuses to endanger the opportunity they have by exploiting it as a platform for political protest.

Peep, who was raised by a white couple and comes from an uncertain racial background, wavers as to the best course.

However, on the day they film before a live audience, Verb, without warning Pinnacle or Peep what he plans, snaps open his shirt at the end of their performance; displaying to the cameras the demand for justice declaration printed on the tee shirt underneath.

There is a clamor by conservative voices and police advocacy groups demanding a boycott of the rappers.  When the record company decides to distance themselves from the controversy, Pinnacle and Peep, feeling angry and betrayed, do nothing.  As a result, Verb is forced from the group just as their fortunes grow.

Goodman’s play calls to mind a joke that made the rounds back when Eminem earned three consecutive Grammys for Best Rap Album, Tiger Woods was the PGA’s Player of the Year, seven years straight, and the Houston Rockets were winning playoff games because of 7-foot-6-inch Shanghai-born Yao Ming.

The joke went, “When the best rapper is white, the best golfer is black and the best basketball player Chinese you know the End Times are near.”

Freud viewed humor and laughter as psychological defenses employed when our understanding of how the world should be is threatened.  The joke above is predicated on such a threat.  A fear of the chaos that would ensue if questions of identity and race were no longer matters – forgive the pun – of black and white.

Matthew Hancock, Clarissa Thibeaux, Chad Addison / Photo by Ed Krieger (The Fountain Theatre)

The playwright, in dealing with the question of race, cleverly resorts to a shell game, referencing his three characters as he mixes the shells of perception, descent, and environment; challenging us to pick the one the “pea” is under.  With Thibeaux’s Peep he throws a ringer in the game by asking if one can pick their place when they’ve lost their race?  Goodman understands that it is only our prejudices that imprison us.

“It’s about getting free,” Verb calls out, “racism is a holding cell!”

Goodman’s play lacks in subtlety and flow, but not in overall merit and certainly not in the sincerity of his writing or in the clarity of his dialogue and characters.

He has also been well-served by an excellent cast and director.

Thibeaux brings to her role what the playwright neglected to, and it is her performance, more than the writing, that lifts her character to equality with the two masculine roles.

Addison’s performance wins the audience twice over; first as the one found listed in the playbill’s dramatis personæ, then a second time as the performer his character aspires to be.

In The Fountain’s staging of The Brothers Size, Matthew Hancock was a stand-out as the young Oshoosi.  He brought to that performance nuance and intelligence, and he has again to this one.

Together Hancock and Addison establish the depth of intimacy which binds their two characters and the solid foundation without which the work would have no hope of succeeding.

Director Deena Selenow skillfully applies the needed dazzle when she wishes to distract her audience and display a deft hand at drawing them in as well.

Producers Simon Levy, James Bennett, Stephen Sachs and Deborah Culver have shepherded Hype Man into an entertaining and thought-provoking show exemplifying the high standards that are hallmarks of The Fountain Theatre.

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Remaining Performances:
March 17 – April 14:

Fridays at 8 p.m.: March 22, 29; April 5, 12

Saturdays at 2 p.m.: March 23, 30; April 6, 13

Saturdays at 8 p.m.: March 23, 30; April 6, 13

Sundays at 2 p.m.: March 17, 24, 31; April 7, 14

Mondays at 8 p.m.: March 18, 25; April 1, 8

Venue:

The Fountain Theatre

5060 Fountain Ave.

Los Angeles CA 90029

(Fountain at Normandie)

For Tickets and Additional Information:

(323) 663-1525

or

www.FountainTheatre.com


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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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