It’s no big secret that white musicians have found a hell of a lot of success standing on the backs of the musical innovations of black artists. From ragtime and the blues through rock and hip-hop, there’s been an almost revolving array of superstars that achieved fame and fortune through appropriating black culture.
This isn’t a new conversation: from Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, and Mick Jagger through modern stars like G-Eazy, Eminem, and Iggy Azalea, it’s been going on for—it seems—as long as there’s been music.
There isn’t, of course, anything inherently wrong with this, given that all art is inspired in some way by other art, but things get murky when there is no reciprocation. Iggy Azalea has recently come under a great deal of fire for her radio silence on topics like Ferguson and Black Lives Matter when she has no trouble wearing black culture like a fur coat.
Such topics are examined with profound clarity and potent ardor in Idris Goodwin’s Hype Man: A Break Beat Play, currently in its world premiere at Company One Theatre, where it will play through Feb 24.
Pinnacle (played by a perfect Michael Knowlton) is a white rapper on the brink of major stardom. As he and his hype man Verb (an astounding Kadahj Bennett) and beat maker Peep One (a flawless Rachel Cognata) prepare for an appearance on The Tonight Show, their biggest and most important performance to date, a 17-year-old unarmed black teen named Jerrod is shot 18 times by the police.
Verb and Peep are shaken, yet Pinnacle thinks they should wait to hear the full story before reacting, saying: “It’s bullshit but we’ve got to shake this off.” Pinnacle hasn’t exactly lived a charmed life, and yet his white privilege has quietly been working to his benefit his entire life. Quietly, I say, because he only begins to understand that when his friendship with Verb and Peep begins to crumble later in the play.
Peep is more pragmatic than Verb about how they should react, and Pinnacle remains steadfast in his belief that it would be unwise to jeopardize his big chance and likens speaking out to shooting himself in the foot.
But on the big night, Verb blindsides Pinnacle and rips open his shirt to reveal a “Justice for Jerrod” T-shirt. Sponsors immediately begin pulling their support for Pinnacle’s upcoming tour and the backlash only grows from there. Needless to say, things are about to get a lot worse between the three friends.
Is Pinnacle’s impulse to protect his career in favor of speaking out for what’s right wrong? And even if it is, at worst, morally dubious, we can kind of see where he’s coming from, right? That’s part of what makes Hype Man work as well as it does: Pinnacle is not vilified, and Goodwin avoids any tendency toward righteousness. If whites are to continue to benefit from the innovations of black people, then is it reasonable to expect that those white artists will stand up in the face of injustice?
The richness of Goodwin’s extraordinary work extends far beyond questions of cultural and artistic appropriation: It examines not only the confounding silence of whites who consider themselves allies when it’s fashionable (yet recoil when the time comes to stand up or—God forbid—speak out) but also class issues that often find themselves woven into such questions.
Director Shawn LaCount has given us a production that is every bit as wrenching as it is joyous, never completely foregoing entertainment in favor of heft. This production knows when to have fun and when to look the audience dead in the eye as if to say: “Now hear this.” It is an achievement on every level that extends into the flawlessly authentic, magnetic, and compassionate performances.
Hype Man is theater at its urgent, vital best. See it and see it again.
HYPE MAN. THROUGH 2.24 AT COMPANY ONE THEATER, 539 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. COMPANYONE.ORG