Plays about young people finding their artistic identities can be fascinating for older folks, since we enjoy seeing that the kids of today are just as screwed up and confused as we were.
And that is what How We Got On by Idris Goodwin attempts to do, as it follows three 15-year-old black and Hispanic teens through their attraction to hip-hop music, which was emerging in the late 1980s.
But the production at the Cleveland Play House, as directed by Jaime Castaneda, is about as non-hip as you can get, and just forget about the hop.
If rap music is anything, it is a continual flow of words tumbling over each other in a giddy frenzy of rhymes and startling images. Unfortunately, How We Got On never “gets it on,” as the performance is shot through with countless long pauses and contemplative silences, as if this was Death of a Salesman or something.
The script by Goodwin is serviceable enough, touching on the innocence of the young people, their fleeting rivalries and friendships, and at times capturing the repetitive wordplay that rap employs. And God knows there’s enough of the “Just chill…ain’t no thang…that’s dope…” stuff to last you for a while. But the characters are drawn perilously thin, meaning that the momentum of the production itself must take up the slack.
Unfortunately, it feels like director Castaneda was thinking too much about the typical gray-haired CPH audience, slowing everything down to a crawl so the cane-and-walker-crowd could keep up. Also, the play attempts to explain some of the technology behind the rap sound, using visual aids in the manner of an Army training film. It's doubtful anyone in the audience is interested in the particular equipment Grandmaster Flash used, or the difference between a turntable crossfade and a drum loop.
The talented cast that plays the teens— Eric Lockley, Kim Fischer and Cyndi Johnson—is never allowed to cut loose. They are overseen on stage by the Selector, a DJ/narrator who often steps in to play other roles including the kids’ parents. The one-named actor Portia tries to spark some energy into the proceedings but she often seems bored herself as she observes the glacial staging.
Oddly, the most compelling moment in the play is when the gorgeous, evocative poem by Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays" is read. In just a few quiet words, Hayden lifts one's spirit in a simple and profound way.
How We Got On
Through November 16 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.