Review by Noe Kamelamela
(Boston) Company One has spent over a decade in Boston bringing theater to bear on a list of problems, which is nearly as long as their list of awards. Their latest is a vibrant production that lays down a phat beat for diversity. The audience I sat in was the most visibly excited and diverse audience I’ve experienced all year, possibly due to one of its key topics: hip-hop.
HOW WE GOT ON traces the birth of hip-hop in a specific suburb in the late 1980s. The plot is laid out via the conceit of a DJ, who chooses the pieces of story which connect our three adolescent, rapping protagonists. What terrible, tragically unhip lives they lead far from the gnarly urban jungle! Yet, hip-hop becomes more than a movement for each of them. What they collectively create together becomes an escape, a way to relate to each other, and a form of communication they can personalize.
It would be difficult to pick an actor who shone above the rest, in particular because the tempo and physicality of one could throw off the rhythm of the entire show. The small ensemble didn’t manage to bring the crowd as a whole to their feet, but certainly, there was a large sense of appreciation for each member’s strengths. I imagine that as the run continues, there may be more audience interaction.
The beats and performances of old school hip-hop, that early east coast sound hit the crowd so hard, those of us in the know yelled it with the performers. The opposite happened when a character began to recite. We were listening respectfully. The original music in the show is on point for each character. As an audience, we were exposed to each character’s conflicts, some potential sources of those conflicts and no conclusions. Still, all of these elements are well-connected.
The technical elements helped to maintain connections between the characters, the period and their motivations. The abstract set design is a nod to cassette culture with light and non-light boxes adorned and stylized with tape cassettes. A radio booth remains suspended above the main action, with the shape of the city far away in the distance and the concrete squares of the suburbs skewing towards the audience. The set, although in one part minimal, is complicated in terms of impact regarding historical significance, character mindset as well as individual set pieces, props and costumes. Sound design did not disappoint, and the live music in particular was not only audible, but bodacious.
One success of the script, including the music selection, is the broad appeal of each character. Anyone could overlay their experiences onto the performers, and I was able to imagine Asians or Cubans, even Caucasians playing these characters with a few changes to the script. There is little violence, no sex and no drugs. Overall, it is filled with the charm, enthusiasm and innocence of early adolescence, when everything is a first. I enjoy (meta-enjoy) that this piece as a whole is structured like a hip-hop song. The production promotes that connection.
HOW WE GOT ON has picked up the mic and is rhyming with a purpose through August 17th. Company One’s 15th season will kick off in October with the world premiere of Kirsten Greenidge’s Splendor.