1988: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ I’m the Rapper, Ultramagnetic MCs’ Critical Beatdown, new releases by Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Boogie Down Productions, Eazy-E, Erik B. & Rakim, Ice-T, Run-D.M.C., Salt-n-Pepa, Slick Rick, and Two Live Crew—this is an almost inconceivably good year in hip hop. In cities across the United States, artists are experimenting in the nascent genre to create masterpieces of music and lyrics, expressing the vibrancy and discontent of urban life in Reagan America.
The suburbs are listening.
Set in 1988, Idris Goodwin’s new play HOW WE GOT ON, in its Philadelphia premiere with Azuka Theatre, follows three suburban kids listening to the new records, watching Yo! MTV Raps, and dreaming of making it big. Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, the play displays the same playful humor, poetic intelligence, and human insights as the music it salutes and which provides its infectious soundtrack.
Hank (Jerrick Medrano) is a studious teenager whose serious father (Zoe Richards, who acts as a DJ and narrator and ably plays assorted minor roles) was one of the first wave of African Americans to move to this Midwestern suburb, “the Hill”. Practicing his flow and writing verse in his room, Hank feels challenged in his position as the rapper of the Hill when he meets Julian (James Whitfield), a braggadocios pizza shop worker and son of an alcoholic.
Julian, self-styled as Vic Vicious, defeats Hank in a rap battle, but Luann (Kishia Nixon), daughter of an NBA star, recognizes that he stole his verses from Big Daddy Kane. Hank becomes Julian’s lyricist and producer, Luann teaches Hank how to free flow (accept “there will be mistakes… and don’t forget joy”)—their rivalries and friendships evolve and mutate. Underlying these relationships is a sense of community amid isolation: other kids on the Hill would rather listen to Rick Ashley and INXS, street-wise hip hop fans in the nearby “City” dismiss the amateur efforts of the suburban rappers. (“Nobody wants to listen to us,” laments Julian. “We’re not the real thing.”)
Goodwin captures the self-serious posing and search for identity of his teenage characters, traits which Medrano, Whitfield, and Nixon gleefully express. The trio also navigate complex generational divides: fathers non-supportive or not understanding, but generally loving. In one affecting scene Hank’s father recites Robert Hayden’s much-anthologized “Those Winter Sundays“, which captures Goodwin’s respect for the “austere and lonely offices” of fatherhood. These are young kids trying to find their place in the world and turning to popular culture to help them, sometimes against their parents’ best wishes.
This is a familiar story for anyone who has ever been a teenager, but this coming of age story is anything but generic. There’s a sing-along to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, musical interludes (Luann, and Nixon, is the best rapper), and attentive detail to setting and language.
[Axuka Theatre in Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street] September 21-October 9, 2016; azukatheatre.org.