Hype Man: A Break Beat Play, At The Wilbury Theatre: Timely,Urgent, So Worth The Hype, I Saw It Twice

26 Nov

Hype Man Wilbury Theatre

Hype Man actors, l to r, Phoenyx Williams, Jeff Hodge, Helena Tafuri, (photo credit: Erin X. Smithers)

I knew I wanted to see Hype Man: A Break Beat Play as soon as I heard about its November run at The Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence. And after seeing the play, I knew I had to write about Hype Man’s timely theme of race, police brutality, and the impact it has on the relationship of the play’s three characters: Pinnacle, the white rapper, played by Jeff Hodge,Verb, Pinnacle’s Hype Man, who is black, and is played by Phoenyx Williams, and Peep One, the woman who creates the group’s beats, played by Helena Tafuri. The play written by break beat poet and playwright, Idris Goodwin, was expertly directed by Don Mays, who allowed each actor to shine in their respective roles.

Verb and Pinnacle grew up together, the best of friends, and bonded further through music, and the formation of their own hip-hop group. Peep is a newer addition to the group, but is vitally important with her attention-grabbing beats. The entire play takes place in the group’s rehearsal studio–save one time the set doubles as a television stage–the spare set consisting of an elevated round platform fitted with a mixing table, a stool, and a microphone. I learned from the play’s director, Don Mays, that the tri-colored, at times overlapping, voice patterns painted on the black walls behind the set, represent the three recorded voice patterns of the actors.

In the opening scene of this one-act play, Verb enters and begins fumbling with the sound system. Pinnacle sneaks up on him, and after a good laugh, and greeting one another with a hug, we learn Verb is just returning to the group after a month-long hiatus for therapy, for what Pinnacle later calls Verb’s “wild behavior.” Peep enters in a rush, and apologizes for being late for rehearsal, sharing there was a police shooting by the highway that slowed her arrival. Verb, looking at his phone, reads that police shot a young black male, 17, named Jerrod. Peep picks up her phone and reads that Jerrod had just gotten the news that his grandmother had taken a turn for the worse in the hospital and was rushing to get to her before it was too late. He was unarmed. He was shot with his hands up while running away from officers.

Sound familiar? It is in this moment we, the audience, are about to witness the live unfolding of the three characters’ varying responses to a police shooting of an unarmed black person. And, yet we, as the audience, will bring our own varied experiences, perspective and judgments which will push us to align ourselves with either Verb, Peep, or Pinnacle’s point-of-view. With social media sharing of video recordings and news reporting of these shootings over these past seven years, white people have become aware of something that Black and Brown people have been experiencing and knowing about for many, many years. I have developed my own responses over time to these shootings, and have witnessed the wildly varying responses of those around me from people who are Black, Brown, white, Asian, Native American, and more, and have taken note of them. As a white person on a daily journey to examine my own whiteness, and the construct of race, racism, the centering of whiteness, and white supremacy in American life, Hype Man, was an intense study on all of this.

Immediately  after the news of the shooting, we see the differing reactions  of the three friends. Verb is visibly shook. Peep is upset, too. Pinnacle immediately questions the story, saying “well, we can’t just jump to conclusions…we don’t know the whole story yet, like, why was he running”..and “police get into really anxious situations all the time..it’s not easy for them…” Pinnacle also seems to easily put the incident aside as he quickly moves on to tell his group mates, “let’s start rehearsing.” Verb tells Pinnacle, “I don’t really feel much like rehearsing,” distraught at the life of yet another young, unarmed black man dying at the hands of a police officer. Peep’s silent frown shows she shares Verb’s feelings.

Yet, with the group now on the verge of making it big with an upcoming appearance on The Tonight Show, Verb wants to seize the moment. He urges the group to use the opportunity as a platform to make a statement about police brutality against people of color. Pinnacle, and Peep, too, aren’t so sure they should. Pinnacle is clearly worried about his image, and losing their chance at a record contract and upcoming tour. Peep shows her support of Verb when it comes to believing in social justice, but also feels the need to make practical considerations when it comes to her budding career as a beats producer. While Verb makes it clear where he stands, threaded throughout the play, we see Pinnacle and Peep struggle with deciding what’s more important: their careers, their friendship, or standing up for justice, knowing they’d be supporting Verb by doing so.

I found myself often looking at Pinnacle, and thinking, he’s saying all those things we white people say about race when we don’t want to listen. Things like believing in the pulling yourself up by your bootstraps theory, as Pinnacle often echoes whenever Verb talks about the struggle of black people and the way they are treated differently by police, “well, I didn’t have it easy either..our family was poor growing up, I struggled, I had to work hard for everything I got, and I didn’t make excuses, or make everything about race,” and, “all this talk about race just divides us, hip-hop brings us together, hip-hop is about unity…”

Pinnacle also seems to miss the mark at times when it comes to being open to embracing aspects of hip-hop culture that don’t mesh with hip-hop on his terms. He makes a point later in the play to say that in hip-hop, people of all different backgrounds come together, but in the beginning of the play Pinnacle and Verb go at it over a memory of a past recording studio session gone bad. Pinnacle, somewhat concerned about Verb after his need for the hiatus, reminded Verb how he always brought friends to the studio, and how that distraction cost them more money for studio time. Verb had a different perspective, saying that those Pinnacle mentioned were family; cousins, to which Pinnacle responded, “yeah, and then they brought their cousins, and their cousins’ cousins, and before you knew it, we had 75 people in that space–it’s too much!” Verb countered, “that’s hip hop!…Biggie and Tupac used to have a lot of people in the studio when they recorded..” That that aura was part of the culture, and inspired creativity. Peep backs up Verb on this with a high five, and throughout the play seems to connect with Verb on matters of race and culture. She, as the sole woman in the group, also at times plays the role of the moderator between Verb and Pinnacle when it’s time to help them put their differences aside for the sake of getting back to the business of making music.

But in this potentially tense moment we see the friendship of the men come through as the quarreling turns to roasting as Verb playfully reminds Pinnacle of a rap battle that took place during that fabled packed recording session. In these moments, Phoenyx Williams showed his natural ability for comedic timing, as he moved fluidly around the stage imitating his cousin comparing Pinnacle, the white rapper, to Joey of the tv show Friends. Pinnacle pretends he’s offended, but then matches Verb’s ability to joke around when he remembers it was Chandler, not Joey, and in his more staccato movement style, raps his remembered comeback rhymes. We see the friendship between Verb and Pinnacle as one with roots that help them overcome the battles every group faces. But we wonder, will they be able to come together with their divergent views on the shooting of Jerrod, and the bigger picture of race in America?  Driving the stakes for jeopardizing their friendship even higher, Verb, during the Tonight Show gig, opens his shirt at the end of their performance to reveal he’s wearing a Justice for Jerrod t-shirt. This move shocks and angers Pinnacle, and leaves Peep wishing Verb had let them in on what he had planned to do. “We are a group.. you should have told us,” she exclaims, as Pinnacle charges out of the studio upset.

Up to now, Peep’s race and ethnicity has remained ambiguous. As an audience member, I know that I wondered to myself, and wanted to ask the question, the one that makes us ignorant for asking, “what are you?” I wondered, is Peep, Latina, bi-racial, white, thinking that I needed that label to help me understand her perspective. We learn midway through the play that there is intention in the ambiguity of Peep’s identity. In a conversation Verb has with Peep after Pinnacle leaves the Tonight Show studio, we learn Peep is adopted. I realized I was relieved when Verb, dancing around the topic for a bit, finally gets direct and he asks the question, “what are you?” Peep shares that she herself doesn’t know, and isn’t sure she wants to. She reveals she’s gone as far as getting a DNA test, but refuses to open the results. Peep says that by thinking that maybe she has Black or Latina roots, or maybe even Native American lineage, she feels like she has all of those cultures within herself that she can draw from and identify with, and that she can be all of those things. Perhaps that is why she can relate to Verb, and be open to understanding how he feels about the shooting of Jerrod, and his now precarious relationship with Pinnacle. I wonder if Peep also picks up on when Verb at times feels Pinnacle is wielding power that feels exploitive, and not only marginalizes Verb’s ranking in the group, but, also, as a fellow human being.

Though Pinnacle distances himself from The Tonight Show incident by denouncing any personal politics around police brutality and anti-racism work, Verb knows what’s important to him in this moment, and chooses to make a stand by getting involved in community activism. He is let down by his supposed friend of so many years, not getting it when it comes to matters of race, and the impact that racism and police brutality have on black people. He even tells Pinnacle how he himself internalizes the fear of his own life being taken simply for being black. Pinnacle seems to want to deny the importance of racial injustice and what it means to Verb for the sake of holding on to his climb to fame. Hodge as Pinnacle does well in his role as the ego-driven star on the verge of hitting it big, and not wanting to do anything to rock the boat, to upset or offend anyone, lest it ruin his career. Clouded by his ambition, and as a white person who has the privilege of not having to consider his race as he moves through the world, Pinnacle even seems perturbed by what he considers Verb’s sudden interest in racial politics. He asks Verb, “when did the light switch turn on for you?…what made you want to get all caught up in this race stuff?..”

It is here, that Verb builds great tension as he recalls the story of the two of them some years back at a high school pool party at a white kid’s home from one of the private schools in town. Even though as Verb shares they were surprised by how wild the kids were and how hard they were partying, when the police show up, they arrest Verb, Pinnacle and a few of their friends, since the white hosts claimed innocence and pinned it on the outsiders, Verb, Pinnacle, and their crew.

Verb goes on to share how while he and the two other friends had to stay overnight in jail, Pinnacle had his uncle, a cop, come and bail just him, the sole white guy in their group, out. Pinnacle claimed not to really remember, but defended himself, saying his getting bailed out wasn’t about race. It was just that he happened to have an uncle who was a police officer. He also again circled back to how even though he’s white, he and his family struggled in many other ways–dysfunctional family members, living in poverty, being made fun of for being a white rapper. Verb counters by saying he even stood up for Pinnacle in the jail cell with the cast of characters, one who recognized Verb and started dissing Pinnacle. Verb said, “I told him, ‘no man, he’s got bars’..”

Peep has less of an emotional tie with  Verb and Pinnacle due to her shorter time period as a group member. Still, she seems torn when decisions have to be made about whether to put herself out on a limb in regards to fully supporting Verb’s point-of-view when it comes to using their art as a platform for social justice, or whether to lean toward Pinnacle’s way of being led by seeing their group’s path as being determined by straightforward business decisions. On the one hand, when Verb felt left out on the creative collaboration between Pinnacle and Peep when he was away, Peep snaps back at him, saying, “when you were out getting your shit together, we were working..” Yet, Peep knows all of this is complex and layered, just as the layers of her identity that she has yet to sort through. We learn through a vignette where Peep expresses her inner thoughts, she is a woman with a deep passion for her craft, who wants to put her heart and soul into her work. Slightly guilty that while she admires many women hip-hop artists that came before her, Tafuri as Peep, shines with exuberance as she shares with us, it was Dr. Dre’s beats that inspired her most. “Despite not being able to move as well as I thought I could as a young girl taking hip-hop dance class…It was Dre’s beats that taught me how to count, how to move..” Still, Peep, like Pinnacle, also wants to make it big, to reach a wider audience. As the only woman of the group, Peep wants to be taken seriously, and to achieve her due, and not be looked down on or taken advantage of for being a woman in the business. For her it is not just about race, but the intersection of race, gender, and the just representation of women in music that matter.

As Verb gets involved with community activism work, Peep continues to work to blend her desire for creative growth and doing the right thing, while Pinnacle, after a period of trying to distance himself from taking a stance for the sake of retaining his fan base and continuing his tour, finally allows himself to remember that night at the pool party when he let his friend down. When in the closing scenes of the play Pinnacle brings up race and after again saying how it just divides people and that it’s “just a stupid made up thing,” in that line I want to say, yes, it is just a stupid made up thing, even though all of what he says leading up to this line lets me know he still doesn’t get it. But this stupid made up thing was made up by people with white skin who created the hierarchy of race with white being on top, and brown and black being beneath, which is what created and continues to perpetuate all the inequities and inhumane treatment of Black and Brown people in this country.

Though Pinnacle fell short when it came to being truly empathetic about matters of race, white privilege, and police shootings of unarmed Black people, Pinnacle realized how much he valued his  life-long friendship with Verb, and ultimately decided to take the responsibility to stand up for something that is hurting his friend and all the people who look like him.  And I couldn’t help but feel, that we, the audience, were all empowered when we saw, Verb, with Pinnacle and Peep by his side, take a stand together, to use their voices to speak out for what’s right. In essence, Pinnacle and Peep, in their show of support, become Verb’s Hype Man.

Hype Man has stayed with me, and I know I will continue to think about it for a long time to come. One of the things I’ve been mulling over was Peep’s scene where she talks about her identity and the way she can relate to all the identities she feels live inside of her and which she can draw from. I saw the play twice, and after the first time,  I struggled to remember if Peep had said later in the play that she did look at her DNA results after her conversation with Verb, and found out she was black, or bi-racial. After watching for the second time, I still don’t remember if I caught her saying that or not. Then I remembered a talk I went to at the Providence Public Library by artist Kenya Robinson, who creates sculptures and installations using hair as an exploration of gender, race, and the normalization of whiteness as a beauty standard. In her quest to feel free from the societal norms that come with gender, Kenya asked, “who would we be if we didn’t identify as a labelled gender?  And then I thought, perhaps it’s best I don’t remember if Peep defined herself as being black. It’s not that I agree with Pinnacle’s point of view of race not mattering, because it certainly matters very much right now as Hype Man, in its reflection of the current time we live in, shows us, but race is not as black and white as black and white, and if we can follow Peep’s lead in honoring who we might be, along with who we know we are, along with, especially white people, taking up the act of learning what it is like to live in the skin of someone who doesn’t look exactly like us, we might all unite and use our voices to take a stand for whoever is being hurt among us.


The Wilbury Theatre Group’s production of Hype Man: A Break Beat Play, was written by break beat poet and playwright, Idris Goodwin. The play was directed by Don Mays. Costume Design  was by Sara Jablon-Roberts, Scenic Design by ​Max Ponticelli, Sound & Light Design by ​Andy Russ, Production Management by ​Liz Craig, Production Assistance by Inés Botto, Stage Management by Charlie Slate, Poster Design by Keri King, Production Photos by Erin X. Smithers





Photo Credit: Erin X. Smithers

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