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Theatre in Review: Syncing Ink (The Flea Theater)

NSango Njika. Photo: Joan Marcus

The Flea inaugurates the Sam, the largest space in its new Thomas Street home, with Syncing Ink, a rush of invention and youthful high spirits that is currently inspiring the kind of audience response rarely seen outside of tent revivals. It's a messy, ambitious piece, with no shortage of flaws, but they pale in comparison with the wit and originality on display, not to mention its celebratory, wide-angle vision of African American culture. The playwright, NSangou Njikam, is something of a new face, but, if this effort is any indication, we'll be hearing from him again, and soon.

Syncing Ink is a coming-of-age comedy focusing on Gordon, a high school student who, more than anything, wants to become an accomplished rapper. However, thanks to an advanced case of performance anxiety, he can barely put two words together -- and as for rhyming, don't even think about it. Adding to his strain, he ends up in an advanced placement English class at Langston Hughes High School, where all the kids freestyle with intimidating ease. Being a tongue-tied nerd in a room full of rap masters is bad enough, but Gordon also yearns after Mona Lisa, who, on entering, brings any room to a halt with her traffic-stopping looks and a voice designed for purring sweet nothings. Even getting her attention means prying her away from Jamal, the class bully and the fiercest rapper on campus. Gordon's case seems hopeless -- then again, there are the odd moments when he starts spitting out words with shocking authority, for reasons he can't explain. In fact, Gordon's dilemma -- at first glance, the stuff of a B movie for the teen market -- has cosmic implications: The youth is watched over by a covey of Yoruba gods, who are anxious to repair a rip in the universe caused by Gordon's parents, which prevents him from exercising his natural talent for composing word-music.

Njikam spins out his grandly involved premise across a series of comic set pieces that are as surprising as they are amusing. A class exercise in writing haikus lays bare the tangled relationships and rivalries among the kids. One sequence unfolds in the style of a cheesy '80s-era martial arts film, complete with atrocious dubbing. When he ends up at "Historically Black College Mecca University," Gordon is torn between the warring influences among the faculty. There's Professor Brown, who is in thrall to the Harlem Renaissance and the standard English Literature canon, disdaining his students' interest in "Little Wayne or Little Yachty or anyone else who is little." Then there's "Baba Black aka Professor Black Power aka Kemet Amen Ra aka Fuck the Written Word!", whose classes are "hundred-percent freestyle" and who sees white paper as a plot against young black minds.

And it has been some time since we have met a playwright who is so drunk on the sheer power of words, especially when his characters are throwing shade at one another. "You contaminate my greatness," snaps Jamal to Sweet Tea, an ex-girlfriend and rap rival. For her part, Sweet Tea dispenses with another rapper, saying, "Ice drop a beat so I can beat the onomatopoeia out his ass." The high school teacher, Mr. Wright, offers cascades of alliteration, telling his class, "You must make pupils of your pupils so you can teach your eyes to see. You must activate and integrate your hidden linguistic capacity, for you all are born with allocations from your ancestors to advance the atoms in the minds of men...and women...and the first way we will resuscitate and rejuvenate your precious gift is through the powerful paradigm we call poetry." No wonder Gordon says, "In my school, lunchtime was a stage, a stage where there were no spectators. We were generators of energy, wrapped evenly around a few brave poetic architects."

It's true that, on occasion, the sheer outpouring of words threatens to become an advanced case of logorrhea, an issue linked to the fact that Syncing Ink is overlong by a good thirty minutes. Such excess extends to the performances. Under Niegel Smith's direction, too much is barely enough, and just about everybody goes over the top from time to time, sometimes undercutting the fun with excess energy. For example, a scene in which Baba Black has a conniption fit could benefit from being dialed down about thirty or forty percent. Also, the sound designer, Justin Ellington, hasn't been able to solve a basic audibility problem, which leaves some of the extended rap passages difficult to make out. (This may have to do with the use of sound reinforcement in a room designed for live performance; we'll get a better sense of the space as the season goes on.)

Then again, Smith has elicited strong performances from everyone, beginning with Njikam, the author, as Gordon, who nurses a brilliant way with words underneath his woebegone exterior; in his deft performance, we're rooting for him every step of the way. McKenzie Frye pulls off a nifty double turn as Mona Lisa and as Gordon's no-nonsense mother. Although she needs to work on her diction, Kara Young turns Sweet Tea into the sort of half-pint that you cross at your peril. ("I spit myself into importance," she announces, brooking no contradiction.) Nuri Hazzard preens fiercely and effectively as Jamal and lands plenty of laughs as Mr. Brown with his faux-British accent. Elisha Lawson amuses as the slippery Ice Cold, who tutors Gordon on the sly, publicly disowning him every time Jamal comes into the room; he also shows up at the final rap battle under the stage name "Born Manifest." The tour de force of the evening belongs to Adesola Osakalumi as the impish Mr. Wright; Gordon's infirm, yet mildly lecherous dad; and Mr. Black, dressed à la Stokely Carmichael and announcing the death of the written word with revolutionary fervor. DJ Reborn, occupying a mixing station high above the stage, paces the action with a steady stream of samples and beats.

Designing the first production for the Sam, Riccardo Hernandez provides little more than a ground plan that serves as a staging area for Kevin Rigdon's kinetic lighting, which works a broad, candy-colored palette. Claudia Brown's costumes neatly differentiate among the students and she cleverly deploys accessories for when the actors take on additional roles. The choreography, by Gabriel "Kwikstep" Dionisio, adds its own electric charge to the action.

It all comes together for the final rap battle, which comes with a couple of solid built-in twists and climaxes in Rocky-like fashion, bringing the audience to its collective feet. As should be obvious, Njikam is not the only discovery here; there's a roomful of futures on display at the Flea. I'm most eager to see where they go from here. -- David Barbour

(10 October 2017)

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