By Richard Budd
It’s 1996, and T.O. has finally arrived in the city at the heart of the hip hop culture he’s only ever observed from afar in the upper-middle class suburbs. He quickly falls hard for a young MC named Prima, but is he attracted to her as a person or for the lifestyle she represents?
A “love story set to some dope beats,” The Realness premieres at MRT on March 16 and runs through April 10.
“It explores hip hop as a movement and as a cultural phenomenon, but also incorporates hip hop aesthetics into the style of storytelling for the stage,” says Idris Goodwin, the playwright behind The Realness who has worn many hats over the course of his career including hip hop artist and professor of hip hop studies.
Part of Goodwin’s incorporation of hip hop with the stage involves the beats themselves, though the production, he says, isn’t a “rap musical.”
“This play really draws from the sound of the voice accentuated by the beat and the idea of talking over a beat, the polyrhythmic quality that’s created,” Goodwin explains. “Almost all of the play is entirely underscored by an evolving soundtrack of beats, so scenes, monologues, all of that, all have beats under them, so it all kind of has this boom-bap quality going through.”
Born in 1977, that “boom-bap” has been a backbeat in Goodwin’s own life.
“I’ve sort of been growing up as hip hop as a genre has been growing up as well, and devoured furiously all of the cultural product that’s come out of that,” explains the playwright, who started writing rhymes as a kid before embarking on a career as a hip hop artist after moving to Chicago in the mid-‘90s. “I put out albums, started doing spoken word, was on HBO and Sesame Street, and so worked in a semi-professional way as a hip hop artist, vocalist, and writer, and now seek to incorporate that into the realm of theater.”
Director Wendy Goldberg has been a long-time fan of hip hop as well. Having grown up in the same Detroit suburb area as Goodwin, she has always been excited by his explorations of race and class.
“My own experience with hip hop came originally as a fan of the music but has morphed into working with hip hop artists who have taken the tropes and conceits of hip hop and theatricalized them,” she says. “I’ve worked with a number of significant hip hop theater artists in this capacity, which even led to a meeting with Russell Simmons where I told him the title and story of this play, and he smiled.”
Goodwin found a natural connection between his love of music and the theater scene.
“There was this huge storefront theater scene in Chicago, so if you wrote a play and knew some actors, you could get it up and get it reviewed, so I kind of learned that way, trial-by-fire,” he says. “The practice of writing a rhyme — you’re thinking about structure, you’re thinking about rhythm, you’re thinking about the voice. Hip hop is really about your character, so it didn’t seem that different to me. It was different sets of norms and mores and history but at the end of the day, it’s words in the air so I just kind of fell into it.”
The fusion of two different art forms by an artist well versed in both, pulls the lens in on relationships, culture and authenticity.
“The tension in the play between being authentic or real and being inauthentic — a brand, a corporate entity — is something that will always flow through hip hop, I’m certain,” Goldberg says. “But more importantly, this play is about being true to yourself, being real and is a huge story of learning and discovery for our main character, our narrator T.O.”
Purchase tickets for The Realness at mrt.org