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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
In the realm of hip hop, Verb, at the center of Idris Goodman's play, is an anomaly: a black man working for a rapper who is white. As Goodwin's Hype Man unfolds over 90 exciting and challenging minutes, the already quite eloquent Verb will find his voice.
While this critic cannot speak to the content of Goodwin's previous "breakbeat plays, " Hype Man, in its West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theatre, is entirely hype-deserving and not simply because it knows how to crush a beat and a lyric. A seemingly straightforward tale of friendship, ambition, and racial unrest doubles back on itself several times and brings in the thorniness of class and gender. Deena Selenow's production is by turns angry and compassionate, never short of riveting.
Chalk this up, in no small measure, to the work of Matthew Hancock as Verb. The actor is wiry and compact, unassuming away from the mic and magnetic when he picks it up. His character may be from the streets, but he is very smart and self- reflective. When we learn early on that Verb has recently emerged from rehab and now embraces therapy and self-help bromides, Hancock has us believing every word, every contradiction.
Before Verb even takes the stage, Goodwin introduces us to another character, a young woman who tinkers with her laptop and sound equipment until she fashions a beat that hits her ear correctly. Peep One (Clarissa Thibeaux), the break beat artist, joined the act fronted by Pinnacle (Chad Addison) while Verb was on the skids.
Of the three, Pinnacle is every inch the rising star, with gigs booked on The Tonight Show, a concert tour and a fast-growing fan base. He and Verb have been friends since boyhood, and Pinnacle will stand by Verb and help advance Peep's career, but not if it means tanking his own ascent. The action of Hype Man takes place largely in a home studio which set designer James Maloof keeps largely low-rent and unglamorous.
Before the start of their tour, Pinnacle and Verb's friendship hits a crossroad. The local police shoot an unarmed black man and Verb, who has previously been neither political nor socially-conscious, wants to use the group's time in the spotlight to denounce the shooting, and this is where Hype Man, the play and the character start to get angry and interesting.
The artful structuring of Goodwin's play shows us the unraveling and restructuring of relationships (Pee and Verb, Verb and Pinnacle) side by side with the creation of new music spurred by social protest. The play is part concert, part drama, with neither element feeling half-baked or pulling focus. When Addison, Hancock and Thibeaux are working a number (with a hearty assist from Beat Maker Romero Mosely, Lighting Designer Chu Hsuan Chang and Sound Designer Malik Allen), they are electric. During the play's quieter moments, the actors are just as dynamic.
While the easy default could be to side against the insensitive white guy, Addison steers Pinnacle away from being a straw man. Pinnacle is carrying his own burden and the actor lets us see the conflict as well as the ambition. Possessed of dramatic and quite versatile hair, Thibeaux faces down all challengers and makes Peep anything but an afterthought.
Ultimately, of course, Goodwin is as concerned with the fate of hype man Verb as he is with the greater social justice Verb is now choosing to boost. In 2019, only an idealist would believe that the Hype Man can get far enough above the noise to make people listen. And, indeed, the discordant final moments of Selenow's production suggests a breakdown rather than a breakthrough. All the same, when justice fails, we need those voices &emdash; all voices. Goodwin, Selenow and company are more than willing to provide the amplification.
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Hype Man by Idris Goodwin
Directed by Deena Selenow
Cast: Chad Addison, Matthew Hancock, Clarissa Thibeaux
Set Design: James Maloof
Costume Design: Michal Mullen
Lighting Design: Chu Hsuan Chang
Sound Design: Malik Allen
Beat Maker: Romero Mosley
Technical Director: Scott Tuomey
Production Stage Manager: Sarah Dawn Lowry
Plays through April 14, 2019 at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles (323) 663-1525, www.FountainTheatre.com
Running time: One hour and thirty minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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