The odds that a digital version of Idris Goodwin’s “Hype Man: a break beat play” would match the play’s riveting 2018 world premiere by Company One Theatre seemed very long.
But “Hype Man” beats those odds. Indeed, in some ways the impact of the new streaming version exceeds that of the live production, partly because its creators have combined elements of both mediums with such imaginative artistry, and partly because the issues of racial injustice at the play’s heart remain so wrenchingly current.
With direction by John Oluwole ADEkoje and Shawn LaCount (who helmed the stage version), and powerhouse performances by the original cast of Kadahj Bennett, Rachel Cognata, and Michael Knowlton, “Hype Man” is as taut as a coiled spring from start to finish.
Presented by Company One Theatre and the American Repertory Theater, it was filmed in February by cinematographers from The Loop Lab at Oberon, the ART’s club stage near Harvard Square. The online production’s blend of passion and craft — including animation and illustrations by Barrington Edwards that add a sizzling new dimension — results in one of the most fully realized works of streaming theater I’ve yet seen.
Of course, none of it would be possible if Goodwin’s play were not as skillfully constructed as it is. Once again you’re struck by the way he has distilled issues of racism, white privilege, misogyny, music-making, friendship, and artistic ambition into a tightly focused drama that anatomizes the shifting dynamics within a striving hip-hop trio.
Reprising their roles are Bennett as Verb, the trio’s hype man; Cognata as Peep One, the beatmaker; and Knowlton as lyricist Pinnacle, the only white member of the group. As the play begins, the trio is preparing for a “Tonight Show” appearance that could be its big breakout moment. But tensions erupt in the rehearsal studio when they learn that a 17-year-old Black youth has been slain by local police, shot 18 times after a high-speed chase when he was racing to care for his stricken grandmother, even though he surrendered.
With characteristic economy, playwright Goodwin captures the instant clash of perspectives within the trio. “So sick of this. How many this year alone?” says Verb. Replies Peep One tersely: “Too many.” When Pinnacle offers mildly “Cops, they get anxious,” Verb snaps an instant retort: “They get racist.”
“I could have been this kid,” he says. “I was this kid.” Verb is determined to use the trio’s upcoming television appearance as a platform on which to stage a protest. Pinnacle is fiercely opposed; his don’t-rock-the-boat argument is that having the trio identified with activism would halt their career momentum. (Later, he goes so far as to say: “That’s not my brand.”)
As the standoff escalates between Verb and Pinnacle, pre-existing strains in their relationship are further inflamed, leading to the exhumation of a long-ago chapter of their friendship that each remembers differently. Meanwhile, Peep One — the newcomer in the trio, only beginning to make a name for herself — has to decide how to react. Is there a conflict between her desire for social justice and her career ambitions?
To all of the play’s many charged moments Bennett, Cognata, and Knowlton bring not just expressivity but authenticity, and truthfulness. Their virtually note-perfect portrayals gain layers of nuance from the close-ups and stand-alone monologue scenes enabled by the online medium.
Also made possible by that medium — and standing as a visual correlative to all those charged moments — are the ingenious, graffiti-like animations and illustrations by Edwards, a swirling blend of moving figures, ectoplasmic shapes, and a kind of psychedelic spaghetti.
“Hype Man” is being presented online in a grimly pertinent context, amid the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd. In the three years since Goodwin’s play premiered at Company One, it has been followed by other powerful Boston-area productions that dealt with racialized violence, such as Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” and Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.”
Different though these plays are in style and approach, they have in a larger sense spoken with a single voice, driven by the same mission, one that is summed up by Verb in a non-negotiable declaration: “I got things I want to say, and I’m going to say them.” With memorable eloquence, force, and immediacy, “Hype Man” says them.
HYPE MAN: A BREAK BEAT PLAY
By Idris Goodwin. Co-directed by John Oluwole ADEkoje and Shawn LaCount. Cinematography by The Loop Lab. Animation and illustrations by Barrington Edwards. Presented by Company One Theatre and American Repertory Theater. Streaming April 8 through May 6. Tickets $25, www.americanrepertorytheater.org or 617-547-8300