Three hip-hoppers walk into a bar: a white rapper, a Black DJ and a mixed-race beatmaker who is also a woman. When Idris Goodman’s play, Hype Man — which chronicles that scenario in which the trio locks horns over issues of sexism, racism and social justice — began hitting stages nationally in 2017, no one could have predicted the police murder of George Floyd or the ensuing surge of the Black Lives Matter movement and dialogue about racism in 2020.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down and closed hundreds of theaters down, Kevin Marchman of the local community-driven Black Actors Guild saw Hype Man as an opportunity that couldn’t wait for current social distancing protocols to pass. In the middle of a busy and productive year cut short for Marchman and his BAG colleagues, they decided to move on Hype Man right away, while social unrest is high. “We didn't want to throw it all over and try again next year,” he says.
Marchman, who praises Goodwin as a personal mentor, couldn’t wait to get to work on the play, especially in collaboration with Aurora’s People’s Building, a cultural venue with similar values bent on showcasing the arts in an inclusive way.
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The three archetypal characters in Hype Man — including the white rapper Pinnacle (performed by Baris Loberg), the black hype man Verb (Mykail Cooley) and the female beatmaker Peep One (Bianca Mikahn) —comprise a hip-hop team that falls into disagreement over a big break: a spot on the Tonight Show darkened by news of another fatal police shooting of a black man. The trio is torn about how to approach it on national television, if at all. Pinnacle “mourns the tragedy,” says Marchman, but prefers to say nothing on camera; Verb wants to be loud about it, while Peep One is caught in the middle and thinking like a woman, fearful of losing credibility and friendship to a disastrous disagreement.
“They are mulling over who gets to have the mic,” Marchman explains. “But when they perform for the Tonight Show, they’re faced with stirring up civil unrest — because of civil unrest. The question is, ‘What do we say — or do we say anything at all? Should we risk success by making a showing of solidarity?’ When Verb takes things into his own hands and walks on stage in a politically charged T-shirt, their differences of opinion tear them apart.
“It’s a very worthy challenge for us to tell this story that is so important at this time,” Marchman says. But why add challenge upon challenge by staging the show now, rather than down the road in a safer atmosphere? “This is the Instagram generation: I’ve seen so much activism through sharing things created by people on gender or privilege,” he adds. “But we want to offer folks a chance to engage in something larger than a few bytes. There’s no right way to be involved in the movement. I’m just thankful to see artists going above and beyond their capacity.”
Marchman also notes how hard it is for many actors to stay home, waiting out the pandemic. “Our cast and production team just want to do something so badly that no hoops can deter us. Some of us are extroverts not being able to connect with people, so we’re cherishing the moment. We just want to be close to each other, provided it’s safe to do so. We’re so energized by not being home.”
In any case, BAG is going with a combination of virtual and live performance options for Hype Man, giving folks a choice when it comes to exposure. In rehearsal, the actors are not wearing masks, and unless rules tighten, they probably won’t in live performance, as they’ll be properly distanced from audience members. But they’re ready for that challenge, too, says Marchman: “Everyone just has to project a little bit more, but we’re also fortunate to have physically expressive actors, and that overcompensates in a good way. I'm biased, though. I'm enjoying this process.”
The important thing for BAG’s production of Hype Man has to do with spreading a message about tempering unrest within a movement.
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“All the characters are flawed, but they have things to teach one another,” Marchman muses. “And towards the end, there’s space to be messy. It’s not about forgiveness. There’s no full 'Kumbaya' moment. It’s just about the ability for art to heal — a continuation of that power hip-hop has been projecting for four decades about language, rebellion and celebration.
“We’re fortunate enough to have work, and to curate a community of artists willing to do the hard thing, and that’s the larger focus of the Black Actors Guild, the People’s Building and the City of Aurora,” Marchman continues. “We all want to spread the message about the effort it takes to share art within the movement, for the love of art, people and culture, and the opportunity to amplify our voice and those of other institutions that have been overlooked.”
Hype Man opens for live and virtual platforms at 7 p.m. Friday, August 7, at the People's Building, 9995 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora, and online, and runs Fridays through Sundays through September 6. For information and tickets — $20 for the virtual option or $40 for the live option — visit eventbrite.com. Both options include nightly talkbacks.