“Hype Man,” the third in Idris Goodwin’s series of hip-hop “break beat” plays, is an audacious choice for the Fountain Theatre. Let’s face it, most stage audiences do not appear to be of the hip-hop generation. But even those who are not fans of the genre will find “Hype Man” an overdue immersion into a cultural phenomenon.
Just in case you need a primer, a hype man is a back-up singer who amps up excitement with call-and-response yells to the concert crowd. Here, the hype man is Verb (Matthew Hancock), a black performer who energizes the audience for Pinnacle (Chad Addison), the white star of the group. Their beat maker is the mixed-race Peep One (Clarissa Thibeaux), a rising star in her own right whose beats are essential to their sound.
Verb and Pinnacle have been best friends since childhood, and until now, race has never been an issue — or at least it seems. Now they are on the brink of breakthrough success — an appearance on “The Tonight Show.” But when an African American teen is gunned down by the police, and Verb, ignoring Pinnacle’s wishes, uses their first national appearance as a forum to protest the shooting, it tears apart the relationship.
Through Verb and Pinnacle’s fraught dialectic, Goodwin addresses complex racial issues, and if that discussion occasionally veers into the simplistic, their exchanges are heartfelt and cathartic. Goodwin also does not shy away from the misogyny in hip-hop lyrics — a disheartening tendency eloquently decried by Peep One.
Buoyed by superb technical elements — James Maloof’s set, Chu Hsuan Chang’s lighting, Malik Allen’s sound, Michael Mullen’s costumes and Shen Heckel’s props — director Deena Selenow elicits first-rate performances from her tight-knit cast, including galvanic rap sequences buoyed by beat maker Romero Mosley. As Verb, Hancock is a suppressed ball of concentrated energy who never walks when he can bound. Even if his character frequently lapses into diatribe, Hancock makes his every utterance richly believable — no mean feat.
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Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays; ends April 14
Info: (323) 663-1525, FountainTheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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