Crystal Fox as Selector in How We Get On.
Part of the 36th Humana Festival of 
New American Plays. Photo by Alan Simons.

How We Got On

Written by Idris Goodwin

Directed by Wendy Goldberg

A review by Kate Barry

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kate Barry. All rights reserved.

Idris Goodwin has written a symphony of words in the style of rap and hip-hop in his play, How We Got On. The wordplay, rhyme and meter of Goodwin’s script are pure poetry, describing the life of three teenagers from Ohio and how they fell in love with Rap music. Actors Theatre of Louisville’s production of How We Got On is an energetic and engaging addition to the current Humana Festival of New Plays.

Before I get too far into the play, set in 1988, I have to take a moment to explain this play’s verbal relevance. Not only is Idris Goodwin a playwright, but he also has a substantial career in poetry and rap as well, having appeared on Def Poetry on HBO. Undoubtedly owing to this unique background with the written word, the vernacular of the play is both hip-hop inspired and beautifully simple. Goodwin weaves prose explaining the essentials of rap with elegant urban poetry. For a play like this, if you pay attention to the construction of the words and how they fit together in their poetic nuance, the entertainment value increases two-fold.

Now on to the performance itself:  Think of it as a hip-hop musical. Upon entering the theater, we meet our narrator and deejay, known as “Selector,” played by Crystal Fox. She spins records on her two turntables while keeping the story moving, remaining at her deejay post, laying down beats for the other actors. On a side note, I couldn’t help but notice the senior citizen couple (not your typical hip-hop fans?) who sat right in front of “Selector’s” deejay booth. I kept watching their reactions to “Selector” to see if they were as engaged as the rest of the audience. They seemed to enjoy themselves. With that in mind, Fox was the perfect deejay. She laid down fresh beats; kept the “party” going, as it were; and commanded your attention with style. Her character reminded me of something straight out of The Warriors or Do the Right Thing.

This play is a history lesson about the early days of rap and how it came to be so influential and popular. We learn all sorts of things about MPC systems, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and Boogie Down Productions. It’s also about a boy named Hank or “John Henry” (Terrell Donnell Sledge) and his friend Julian “Vic Vicious” (Brian Quijada). These boys are in love with rap and have big dreams of becoming famous rappers. They come from the suburbs of Ohio, also known as The Hill, where rap and hip-hop are in the back seat and hair metal and other disposable pop music reign supreme.

Sledge is the heart of the play. As Hank, he is a smart and gifted teenager who wants to break into the rap world with fresh new rap lyrics. Sledge carries a giant boom box with an attached microphone throughout the entire production. Where Fox’s Selector incorporates history lessons about Rap’s evolution, Sledge’s Hank provides big dreams for stardom as he is the “hype man” for his own life. He partners up with Julian in rocky artistic friendship. Having to deal with pride and pressures from parents, by the end of the play they choose different paths. As Julian, Quijada provides a perfect foil for Sledge’s Hank. Quijada is playful and a little bit stubborn. But his shining moment is when he realizes that he can make noises with his mouth, or beat box. Deonna Bouye plays Luanne, “a rich black kid who thinks rap is ghetto.” Instead of a predictable story line where Bouye’s character could very well have developed  romantic feelings for either of her male counterparts, Luanne is a strong young woman who proves that she can play with the boys with her ability to make up rhymes “without paper,” or freestyle.

I am very delighted to see Actors Theatre, after a slight obsession with plays focusing on rock and roll music (Hedwig, Rock and Roll: The Reunion Tour and  Marc Masterson’s 1960s-set A Midsummer Night’s Dream), exploring other contemporary musical styles. With a play like How We Got On, which fuses rap as a literary form and as musical genre, they have the chance to reach a whole new audience. In conclusion, to borrow a phrase from the play itself, the show was “dope.”

How We Got On

March 2-April 1

Part of the 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays

Actors Theatre of Louisville
Bingham Theater
Third & Main Streets
Louisville, KY 40202