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Theatre in Review: Vivian's Music, 1969 (59E59)/Hype Man (The Flea Theater)

Top: Kailah King and Russell Jordan. Photo: Al Foote III. Bottom: Matt Stango, Tay Bass, Shakur Tolliver. Photo: Hunter Canning

Two new plays tackle the always-thorny issue of race in America, in markedly different ways; each is well worth your attention. Vivian's Music, 1969 introduces two characters living in Omaha in the year of the title. Vivian is a precocious, extremely curious fourteen-year-old who, most of the time, keeps a low profile. "I see things other people don't see," she says, "on account of I can be anyplace, and nobody sees me. It's my talent. Helps me figure out what's what pretty quick." For example, there's the church choir: "My sister Earlene gets all the solos, and she thinks it's on account she has talent. But I seen what she and Brother James been doin' in the church basement." The contrast between such scalding observations and Vivian's friendly, soft-spoken manner is striking; despite her claims of invisibility, she is not to be ignored.

On the other side of the stage is Luigi Wells, who, despite the Italianate name, is a black jazz drummer from New York. He is someone to reckon with, too; the first words out of his mouth are "It was just like her to die at an inconvenient time. My momma." Indeed, Luigi and his mother had a famously difficult relationship and she made no secret of her disappointment at having a son. As he soon discovers, his inconvenience is only beginning: His mother owned and operated the Dreamland Ballroom, where, Vivian notes, "all the great jazz cats came to play, right here in Omaha, 'cause they'd be on their way between Chi Town and K.C. and need a place to stay in between." The old lady has left the ballroom, which has been closed for a couple of years, to Luigi, along with an onerous burden of unpaid taxes. Trying to figure out his next move, Luigi reopens the place; he also gets a job teaching drums at a rundown music store owned by George Hollewinsky, a stooped, aging polka king, and his skeptical wife, Helen.

It's giving nothing away to reveal that Vivian is Luigi's daughter, the result of youthful fling. Vivian knows the truth, thanks to a catty comment from Earlene. She is ineluctably drawn to the ballroom, partly because of Luigi's presence and partly because Duane, her boyfriend, starts sitting in with the house band; she is appreciative of this development, since she has tired of his involvement with the Black Panthers. "Nothin' more borin' than a sixteen-year-old black boy talkin' revolution," she notes, acidly. Meanwhile, Luigi, trying to land financial backing from George, reluctantly allows him to sit in with his accordion -- and is stunned to discover that his talent extends well beyond the polka repertory.

With all these characters converging on the ballroom, it is only a matter of time before Vivian and Luigi finally connect -- or is it?. They come tantalizingly close once or twice, but the playwright, Monica Bauer, saves the moment of recognition for the very last, when the city is engulfed in a race riot that really did take place in Omaha that summer. (For the record, Vivian is based on a real girl of the same name.) Vivian's Music, 1969 is especially good on the sour mood of that year, when, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, so many hopes had curdled into a call for violent racial action. (At one point, Vivian's mother gives her a hair-curling account of the lynching of a distant relative.) As Luigi notes, "Riots had been eatin' up black neighborhoods like locusts moving through wheatfields, youngbloods intent on showin' the white man all about black power by strippin' black neighborhoods of everything that wasn't nailed down."

The play's last five minutes, when Bauer tries to bring it all together, aren't as believable as everything that has come before. But both Vivian and Luigi cast a spell. Vivian constantly surprises with her hidden toughness: Complaining about the constant corrections of her English teacher, she grouses, "Don't know where she thinks we're goin', we gonna need to know how to talk like Sandra damn Dee, but she says we in high school now, we got to learn to speak real English." And there's something in this observation: "Don't you just hate it when you want something and don't want something at exactly the same time, and it just rolls around inside you like a marble in a can?" As played by Kailah S. King, Vivian is a sly one, keeping tabs on everyone in her world and sharing her unsentimental observations only with us.

Russell Jordan, as Luigi, has his own insistent melody line, whether finessing the Hollewinskys by polishing his war record and pretending to have played with The Beatles, amusingly noting that a jazz musician can play rock-and-roll with one hand tied his back ("If you can run a four-minute mile, you sure as hell can run an eight-minute mile") and coolly wondering what it would be like to split an unjust white man's head open.

The handling of the actors -- new faces both, and well worth seeking out in the future -- by the director, Glory Kadigan, is exemplary. The simple lighting, by Benjamin Ehrenreich, and costumes, by Janet Mervin, are highly suitable. Best of all is Andy Evan Cohen's sound design, which includes Ella Fitzgerald singing "Satin Doll," a lovely arrangement of "Misty," and other music of the era, including a bit of the Dave Brubeck Quintet. As it hurtles toward its tragic climax, Vivian's Music, 1969 is a saddening reminder that the more people assert that a change is gonna come, the more things sometimes stay the same - dispiritingly so.

It's a sentiment with which the characters of Hype Man would agree. Set nearly half a century later than Vivian's Music, 1969, it once again turns on an ugly incident between black youths and the police. Idris Goodwin's taut three-character play begins in a music studio. Pinnacle is a rising hip-hop star about to break into the big time; that he is white and specializes in a party-hearty musical repertory - his big hit is called "The Boy He Do Shine" -- certainly doesn't hurt. Rounding out his musical crew are Verb, his childhood friend and hype man -- described by Wikipedia as "a backup rapper and/or singer who supports the primary rappers with exclamations and interjections and who attempts to increase the audience's excitement with call-and-response chants" - and Peep One, his female beatmaker. They are prepping for a gig on The Tonight Show - but Peep is late for the rehearsal, thanks to a traffic snarl caused by an incident involving another young black man shot by the police.

All three are upset by the news, but only Verb, who is black, wants to do something about it. Pinnacle doesn't want anything to mar his moment with Jimmy Fallon, and, with the presumed backing of Ryan, their unseen manager, he vetoes the idea. But, in the studio at 30 Rock, Verb rebels, exposing a "Justice for Jerrod" T-shirt at the end of the performance. With this gesture, the trio spins out of control.

Goodwin packs an enormous amount of provocative material into a small package. Verb is driven to speak out and feels betrayed that his best friend won't support him. Pinnacle, who has completely assimilated hip-hop culture, loathes being identified as white; having come up in the same rough neighborhood as Verb, he rejects any suggestion of privilege. But the charge sticks, thanks to his reluctance to turn activist. Peep, who is adopted and refuses to investigate what is clearly a mixed-race background, at first tries to keep the peace, but ends up taking sides in order to advance her own career, in which she hopes to counter the misogynist material of her male colleagues with female-positive songs. This proves to be something of a devil's bargain.

The confrontations are brutally frank, especially when Verb brings up an incident from their high school years when they ended up at a party of rich white kids, got framed for possession of drugs and liquor, and ended up in jail - except for Pinnacle, who got sprung by his uncle, the cop. Even in a lifelong friendship, racial tensions and inequities are impossible to avoid.

Hype Man benefits from an admirably tight structure, but its conclusion feels too glibly arrived at; for the characters to come back together in the way the author intends, they would surely need more time in the wilderness and more space to face the truth about themselves. Then again, Goodwin has populated his play with three explosive personalities, each of whom is realized with gusto by the talented cast. Shakur Tolliver radiates star power as Verb, who veers between airing his fury and working to convince the others that his personal problems are past. Matt Stango brings enormous dynamism to Pinnacle's musical performances, and he has a strong handle on the character's uneasy balance of personal loyalty and hunger for success. Tay Bass has a sly, sideways manner as Peep, who is skilled at playing devil's advocate with both her musical partners, but who hands out a tongue-lashing when she needs to. Chances are, you won't want to take your eyes off any of them.

Kristan Seemel and Niegel Smith have staged Hype Man in The Pete, which is the smallest of the Flea Theater venues -- indeed, it's more of an event space. With the audience on four sides, and Xavier Pierce's clever use of cove lighting and saturated color from some LED units overhead, the room is effectively transformed into three or four locations, including a TV studio and concert touring stage. Anton Volovsek's set design is necessarily simple -- it is dominated by Peep's sound system -- and the costume designer, Sarah Lawrence, has come with a distinct and authentic look for each character. Putting on a hip-hop drama in such a small space could have been an auditory nightmare, but Keenan Hurley's sound design is remarkably sensitive.

If Hype Man wraps up too easily, the issues that it poses are very real -- and are oddly echoed in Vivian's Music, 1969. In any case, Goodwin's characters are a galvanizing trio and they are guaranteed to give you plenty to think about. This is an imperfect piece, but it is also what The Flea does best -- giving voice to a gifted, provocative young writer and providing a showcase for some exciting young actors. -- David Barbour

(21 November 2018)

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