DEEP DIVE INTO THE HIP-HOP WORLD OF HOPES, DREAMS AND LOVE
Arizona Theatre Company

The Arizona Theatre Company's stage has always had a welcoming spot for jazz, blues and country music. Now ATC's artistic director Sean Daniels brings our theatrical pop culture experience up to date with a play reading of “The Realness,” presented online in the COVID-prompted virtual format.

Described as a work in progress and originally sub-titled “a break beat play,” playwright Idris Goodwin takes us straight into the hip-hop heart of young T.O. (Terrell Donnell Sledge), a New York teen who grew up living for the true-grit ideals of the rapper's lifestyle.

The twist is, T.O. comes from wealthy black parents who raised him in a comfortable white suburb. He also has a trust fund...much to T.O.'s own chagrin.

 We are in the school year 1996-97, and this congenial lad identifies with the hard core gangster sounds of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

The deaths of Tupac and B.I.G. become show-stoppers during the play, forcing T.O. to re-see with new eyes his own chosen lifestyle.

Two women play strong roles in “The Realness.” The street-wise Prima (Analisa Velez) is beginning to attract attention on the ambitious amateur level among the city's hip-hop artists. She dreams of getting signed to her own record deal, to become just like her vaguely-defined boyfriend Lord Style (Marcus John), who thinks of himself as being a few rungs higher up the ladder.

Professor Brown (Moya Angela) is the iron-willed college journalism teacher who pushes T.O. to keep looking deeper, searching for his true self, and his own music, instead of letting the music that's already popular define him.

Completing the cast is Hector Flores, Jr. playing several smaller roles. The most touching is Ray, another eager teen. Ray has a severe stuttering problem, except when he starts rapping. Then he becomes a giant.

The Realness” is being polished into a gem with many facets. It isn't about the music, exactly, or the struggle to be heard, exactly, or to need to identify oneself, exactly. All those elements are in this swirl of competing ideas, grasping like so many hands to reach a different way out.

Goodwin the playwright isn't about to start picking winners and losers among them. Prima still won't let her heart rule her head and T.O. is more than happy to lie, cheat, steal and do whatever else it takes to have Prima for his own.

All the while, Prof. Brown is toiling in the background, believing her job is to create and graduate an entirely new generation of young black people cable of shaping their own talents, breaking free of limitations others put on them.

Each of the people we meet has a defining scene and a different story. The play might not change your opinion of hip-hop, but your view of life's future possibilities will surely broaden.

While the virtual format online is limiting, the production by this cast brings value to ATC's reputation. No tickets are necessary to watch “The Realness.” Donations are appreciated to help keep the doughty theater company moving into 2021.

Go to arizonatheatre.org and follow the prompts. “The Realness” will be available online until 5 p.m. Nov. 22.



"MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN" HAUNTS THE SUBCONSCIOUS
photo by Tim Fuller
At the Rogue Theatre, Bryn Booth and Christopher Johnson, foreground, and Hunter Hnat in the shadows take the familiar Frankenstein story into new territory. 

Equally dark and disturbing but without the extreme cinema effects we associate with Frankenstein's monster, that is the Rogue Theatre's stormy production of “Mary Shelley's Frankenstein” by playwright David Catlin.

Now available online in a virtual format, all the actors onstage are wearing masks, bringing action to their pre-recorded words.

There is no “zoom effect” of each actor contained in a separate panel on the screen. As in the Rogue's previous production, “A View from the Bridge,” this solution to current pandemic restrictions works beautifully.

Thoughtfully enough, the Rogue has posted a free "preview" clip of its professionally filmed full-90 minute production at the company's website, www.theroguetheatre.org. Tickets are available online.

Live performances on stage will be offered at the Rogue the last weekend in November, also with masks. At present, those are sold out.

But as an online theater experience, this film of the Rogue cast directed by Cynthia Meier packs a thoughtful wallop that's not to be missed!

Opening in the midst of this very real COVID 19 crisis does feel creepily appropriate, a constant reminder that outside the theater, we are surrounded by a more immediate threat.

Catlin debuted his play last year, pre-pandemic, stripping away the usual traditions of movie emphasis on the grotesque and replacing them with the more mentally chilling chains of responsibility that can reach out from beyond the grave.

This is traditional storytelling of the purest theatrical kind, performed in period costumes of the early 1800s on basically a bare stage, surrounded by enormously effective lighting and sound, as well as a delicately placed music score that urges on deeper involvement with Shelley's morbid philosophy.

The Rogue's version is taken more directly from the original novel by Mary Shelley, first published in 1820, where the harried story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his unfortunate Creature is set among five friends in an abandoned Swiss castle amusing themselves on long stormy nights by making up frightening ghost stories.

Meier has chosen to give her players a kind of overstated formality in speech and manner that goes with our image of 19th century European privilege. Among the players are Christopher Johnson as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Hunter Hnat as Lord Byron, Bryn Booth as Mary Shelley, Claire Hancock as Claire Clairmont and Sean Patrick as Dr. Polidori.

The Shelleys, Lord Byron and their close friends were like proto-hippies. Young and brilliant figures of the art world, flaunting their freedom from the sexuality and morals of more ordinary folk. Their own feelings become important later on, as they join together to play out the tale of the driven scientist Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Johnson) and his tortured Creature (Hnat).

Mary Shelley – devoted to her lover Percy (who became her husband) – would shock her friends by reminding them with this story that no amount of fancied freedom on Earth would let them escape God's own final judgement of their lives.

But back to Dr. Frankenstein and his determination to create life in a laboratory setting...animated by his desire to control the apparent life-giving properties of electricity.

The story is intensely told as a play within the play. Mary Shelley takes the role of Elizabeth, the doctor's devoted companion. Percy Shelley plays Victor, who turns away in wretched horror from the living "thing" he has created out of dead and decaying human bodies.

Lord Byron becomes this feared creation, who has the power of speech and intelligence as well as super-human strength. Johnson and Hnat in these roles become dueling vortexes of emotion, as the Creature is determined to make the doctor feel guilty about his creation.

Yet, the success of “Mary Shelley's Frankenstein” is a true ensemble effort as all the cast maintains high intensity in telling this sprawling tale that stretches both wider and deeper than the Hollywood movie genre it subsequently spawned.

For additional historical background and details on streaming the fully enhanced video version at any time through Nov. 29, visit theroguetheatre.org or call 520-344-8715 for administrative questions, 520-551-2053 for the ticket line. Tickets are $42, students $15.