IN THE LATE 1980s, hip-hop and rap were emerging rapidly. Beats, styles, and rhymes were becoming more nuanced, infused with political messages and powerful personalities. Performers like Public Enemy, Ice-T, MC Lyte, and Kid 'n Play were changing the game, but they only entered mainstream consciousness when MTV started playing rap videos in heavy rotation in 1988.
Set in that crucial year, Idris Goodwin's How We Got On opens Portland Playhouse's eighth season with the story of Hank, Julian, and Luann, three black suburban 15-year-olds with dreams of rhyming stardom. The goal, however, is as much about art as notoriety. What they're after is the perfect rhyme, the demo tape that will land them on Yo! MTV Raps, then the Holy Grail of rap success. Hank (the endearing Joe Gibson), a fairly square, suburban Millhouse-type, has the words, but not the confidence. Julian (played with fierce energy by Chip Sherman) has the street attitude and braggadocio to throw down in a parking lot rap battle, but no patience to wait around; he wants to get to the top, and he wants to get there now. Luann (played by the charming and talented Ashley Nicole Williams) is the daughter of a famous basketball player, who has stars in her eyes and fresh beats in the offing. Whether the three can work together to create the hottest track on a demo tape? That's up in the air.
Our young heroes are guided by the Selector, an omnipresent DJ entity who serves as narrator and chorus, here played masterfully by Ithica Tell, whose distinctive voice changes effortlessly between characters: a neglectful father, a clueless white classmate, a distinguished professional, a booming radio DJ. The Selector is a fabulous role whose presence holds the production together with an informative—but always electric—narrative glue. I initially raised an eyebrow when I heard "hip-hop musical," but music direction from Mic Crenshaw provides a solid, funky, and relevant musical tapestry that the characters weave together to create something whole. The raps aren't campy backdrop either—they're the driving force behind the show, channeled through four phenomenal actors.
How We Got On takes us through a pivotal time in the history of music—a new, empowering cultural identity, and the advent of commercially available synths, drum machines, tape recorders, and boomboxes. Fighting both personal and societal demons, Hank, Julian, and Luann push through high school and after-school jobs to hammer away at an exciting collaboration. What follows is a catchy, fresh, and unique journey through ego, self-doubt, identity, and inspiration—a keyhole view into a place in time that playwright Goodwin didn't want to be lost to history or white-washed in its telling.
In a conversation after the performance I attended, Sherman put it this way: "[The] thing about it is, right now, there are constantly black people getting shot across this country. Injustice has happened, and is still happening... and it's great to be a part of something that doesn't necessarily dwell on that side. You know? It shows the love, it shows the joy. It shows how we got on. Not just getting on and then becoming famous, but how we got on as a people. How we created this beautiful art form out of oppression."