The hip-hop beats of ‘The Realness’
What: The hip-hop beats circa 1996 — by the Fugees, Dr. Dre, Nas, and others — that infuse “The Realness: a breakbeat play.”
Where: Merrimack Repertory Theater, Lowell, March 16-April 10. Tickets: $15-$51, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org.
For playwright Idris Goodwin, music provides the texture for his storytelling. “How We Got On,” which was produced by Company One Theatre in 2013, traced the coming-of-age tale of suburban teens discovering their culture and identity through hip-hop circa 1988. His newest play, “The Realness,” which is having its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, is a simple love story narrated by T.O., an aspiring journalist eager to immerse himself in “the realness” of the hip-hop scene of 1996. But when T.O. spins a lie to win the heart of a young woman rapper, complications ensue.
“The primary aesthetic of hip-hop is reference,” says Goodwin. “A DJ builds and expresses emotion through a combination of existing beats. What I’m trying to do with these plays is investigate, through traditional storytelling tropes, how hip-hop has affected us.”
Goodwin’s ability to weave the story lines of hip-hop poetry with his tale of teenage angst gave his drama “How We Got On” another layer of emotion, which added nuance to his characters. For “TheRealness,” Goodwin says he used the same approach to build out T.O.’s journey.
“I think of ‘The Realness’ as T.O.’s essay on a very specific time in his life,” Goodwin says. “But I’m also a performance writer. I let the beat lead, and the words come out of that.”
Goodwin worked closely with director Wendy C. Goldberg and sound designer Joshua Horvath to develop the sonic quality of the play. “The Realness” had two workshop productions that Goodwin says allowed the trio to try different beats and samples that amplify the storytelling.
Three out of the five actors rap at different points in the play. Goodwin records his voice when he’s writing to help develop the meter for the pieces, but he doesn’t ask the actors to mimic his performance.
“Hip-hop is all about live performance,” he says. “So the actors have to have the rhythm of the piece in them to begin with. I’m lucky to have Wendy working with me, since she also directed the first production of ‘How We Got On,’ and she knows what to look for in actors at the audition.”