OK Houston, If we told you that right now you could go see a world premiere hip-hop musical about a teen who learns to express himself through rapping, by a playwright dedicated to telling stories from the African diaspora vantage point, where do you think the show would be playing? We’re guessing not many would pick the venerable but distinctly non diverse in its programming or artistic team, Alley Theatre. It’s certainly a bold, out of character and very welcome long overdue move on behalf of the Alley. A move that runs deeper than simply staging a show.
Syncing Ink by Baltimore playwright NSangou Njikam comes to the Alley by virtue of New Work Director Elizabeth Frankel, who discovered the piece in the Emerging Writers Group at The Public Theater, a program she ran in New York prior to joining the Alley. Last year the show was workshopped as part of the Alley All New festival and now Njikam's Syncing Ink is the first play to receive a full production since the launch of the All New initiative.
The whole thing is like a spoil of newness riches. New play, new playwright, new direction for the Alley and most daringly, a new experience for Alley audiences, who by and large let’s face it, aren’t exactly hip hop aficionados. So in this spirit of newness we’ve added our own unique twist by throwing both our theater and music minds at the show to break it down for you. Is Syncing Ink the real deal in music and story? And will it play well for Alley audiences and beyond? Theater Critic Jessica Goldman and Music Writer Brandon Caldwell talk it out.
Jessica: Let’s start this off by playing in my backyard – the theatrical merits of the show. Act 1 gives us a straight up coming of age story set in high school. Gordon is a nerdy kid desperate to learn how to rap but suffering from Charlie Brown syndrome. No matter how hard he tries he fails. All made worse by the kids in his advanced English class, a trove of standard characters – the spirited smart mouthed girl Sweet Tea, the master rapper bully Jamal, his loyal and comedic sidekick Ice Cold – all of whom can bust a rhyme like no one’s business. Then there’s the new girl bombshell Mona Lisa. No rap in her, but she likes boys that can. Poor Gordon is smitten but powerless. It’s all pretty run of the mill storytelling, it even has a sick parent pushing Gordon to follow his dreams for good measure. And yet Syncing Ink in this first act is joyously charming and comedic thanks to all round terrifically entertaining character acting and Nijkam’s wise decision to set the story in a class full of smart kids. This isn’t your stereotypical guns and gangs hip hop narrative. These are intellectually top notch young adults who use rap to communicate their inner poetry.
Brandon: No matter how easy the story goes down or how much we like the characters, the show can’t go anywhere unless Nijkam’s rhymes are correct. There's always an apprehension when going to see a complete stranger rap or perform music. Will it be authentic? Here, Jamal is crafty, someone who stacks metaphors of bravado driven by alpha male tendencies. Gordon, even as an ineffective novice recites raps in the same vein as early LL Cool J. When he and Jamal go to battle, they're reminiscent of the '90s rap acts willing to cut you down viciously and with fury. Sweet Tea's confident and clever, especially in her constant retorts to Jamal, who we learn is an old flame gone spectacularly sour. But a good rapper is nothing without a DJ steering him correctly. Although the play continually opts for an emotional center with Gordon, the true guide is The Mutha (DJ Reborn) who, positioned on a riser in the corner of the theater, handles all the sound mixing for the show in real time. Without her, the music has color but not taste, definition but no context. Playing up to the era, The Mutha is in tune with all of the characters, their rage, their sincerity and even when they find moments of hubris. Real DJs know their associates better than anyone. The Mutha ebbs in and out with timely scratches and audio cues. Without fault, she plays a secondary narrator merely through musical selection and timing.
Jessica: So the story is textbook but the rap is the real deal. Agree 100 percent. Add on the fact that it’s not totally sung through and Syncing Ink feels way more In the Heights than Hamilton. But I want to touch on your mention of Gordon’s clumsy attempts. There’s a scene in Act 1 where he decides he’s going to teach himself to rap by studying and practicing the methods of established emcees. Gordon figures out that every rapper has an angry face, hands that throw up to God and a signature way of chiming into the beats. All of this is broken down for us in a montage heavy “how to” kind of fashion. It’s hysterically funny watching Gordon take his pathetic stabs at the three elements, but it also felt like Nijkam was spoon-feeding basic info to those that were hip hop ignorant. Great perhaps for a typical Alley audience member, but what about those in the know?
Brandon: For those in the know, even they would have to recognize that explaining it to novices would be necessary. Someone isn’t going to know every intricacy in regards to being an OK rapper without studying the craft. Those people who may have followed along with hip-hop all of their lives can remember their awkward beginnings or performances for that matter. Nijkam captures this amateurish attempt beautifully.
Jessica: I spent some time looking around at the faces of the older…and I’ll say it…whiter faces in the crowd and they were all in for Act 1, so I’m glad to hear that you think it also resonates with a more seasoned group. But then Act 2 happened and in my mind things went south. Gordon and the gang are now in University and suddenly Nijkam drops his plot driven narrative and piles on all sorts of disparate devices. There’s flashbacks, and flash-forwards, there’s magical realism, psychedelic surrealism and even divine intervention. The ideas themselves were good and some of the bits very funny and beautifully choreographed, but it felt like suddenly we were watching far too many plays crammed into one. Worse still, most of the second act was taken up with Gordon STILL learning how to rap. It started to feel like the whole show was one long drawn out lesson building to the happy ending we knew was coming all along.
Brandon: I can definitely see why you champion Act 1 over Act 2, mainly because it goes from a straight-forward coming of age tale to something that brings in all these different elements. I liked the second act the same way I enjoyed the first, because the music sort of grew with each of the characters. Gordon still appreciates jazz influenced, poetic rhyming, same for Sweet Tea who powers off the Afrocentric. Nijkam definitely wanted to pack in all the different experiences of a college freshman out on his own and is still a fish out of water. To me, it all worked. The West African influences in both music and costume in the second act make bold, striking appearances that helped Gordon get into touch with what he had inside, and I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true. This may also sound cheesy, but it kind of reminded me of Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ album compared to ‘Thriller’. Both are great. However, one is a streamlined fun disco record with a purpose and theme to it. The other is throwing so much variance at you back to back that it becomes an event project. And the second act pretty much is an event project where a theater maven such as yourself is going to be thrown by the disconnect.
Jessica: We’ll agree to disagree of the success of the structure of the play, but I know we both concur that this is a tremendously talented cast, most of whom play an assortment of wildly different characters throughout the musical. Director Niegel Smith shoots these actors out of a cannon and expertly gives them plenty of room to fill up the space with big personality. Nijkam himself plays Gordon with a sweet geekiness and of course we’re rooting for him. But for me it was Kara Young as Sweet Tea that owned that stage. In a Shakespearean ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce’ kind of fashion, Young with her tomboyish sexy sass and her hypnotic feminist-bent beats, gave us a can’t take your eyes off her performance.
Brandon: Agreed, Kara Young could eventually have her own one woman show down the line. But, every story requires a villain or the pretense of one. Nuri Hazzard as Jamal just had this magnetic charisma to him. He was forceful when need be, cocksure when called upon and when it was time to rap? He was effortless in his approach. In a world so structured to the point where “the bully needs taking down” is an obvious plot device, Jamal is the perfect bully - talented and vengeful while also maintaining his own sense of purpose.
Jessica: Finally we have to talk about the look of the show. I loved the theater in the round setting; the 360 view of the characters gave them gravitas, room to move and made the rap scenes far more dynamic. But what about the set design? The stage floor was simply a plain wooden circle which worked nicely, but flanking the walls around the theater were these abstract mural designs in burgundy, black and yellow that felt out of synch for me. Perhaps they were a West African tribal nod, but honestly that’s just a guess. Did you pick up any meaning from them?
Brandon: Sadly, I didn’t. The paintings on the walls, while perhaps a nod to the diaspora didn’t really add to the story. And if you don’t know or understand their meaning then they’re merely reduced to window dressing. It wasn’t acknowledged at all in the show which is a shame. I mean, they used so much of the round setting to bring the audience into the action while leaving out one very noticeable detail. They invited participation in the show several times but never made it clear what the design was asking us to participate in.
Jessica: Bottom theater line, Syncing Ink takes a well-worn narrative arc and for the first half of the show breathes fire into it by virtue of the music which neither dumbs down for a novice audience nor condescends to the initiated. We love these characters and their rhymes enough to squirm through the oddly circuitous second act and come out cheering full throttle for an ending that we know is too neatly tied up in a pretty bow. Obvious be damned, the music is pumping, the raps are flying and we want to celebrate.
Brandon: Bottom music line, Syncing Ink works for its love for hip-hop. For ‘90s A Tribe Called Quest lovers for Grandmaster Flash nods and Adidas tracksuits. For adopting J. Cole’s “Fire Squad” and ending the show on the greatest hip-hop love song of all time.
Syncing Ink continues through March 5 at. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For tickets call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $45-$72.