‘Hype Man’ Eyes Racism Through A Hip Hop Lens

July 11, 2020

L-R Aaron “Gritty” Grinter, Grant Bryne & Paige Neely – Courtesy of Fonseca Theatre Company. Used with permission.

Fonseca Theatre Company made history on July 9 when it opened Idris Goodwin’s drama, “Hype Man: a break beat play.” While most theatres in Central Indiana are shut down indefinitely because of COVID-19, FTC is one of only two local, professional companies presenting live theatre, with Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre being the other. The outdoor performing space is positioned in the rear parking lot of FTC’s Basile Building on West Michigan Street in the Haughville neighborhood on the Near Westside. Seats, set up in pairs under tents, are spaced six feet apart and masks are required to ensure the safety of patrons. Great effort is taken on the part of FTC management to make all feel at ease.

If there ever were a timely play with “ripped-from-the-headlines” subject matter, it is this one, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, as well as the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, including Indianapolis resident Dreasjon Reed, who was shot multiple times while fleeing police. The play takes place in the world of hip hop and explores multiple themes, including police brutality, racial injustice, privilege, the role of artists and friendship.

In the play, we meet the “Hype Man” named Verb (Aaron “Gritty” Grinter), who is Black, rising star Pinnacle (Grant Byrne), who is white, and sound engineer Peep One (Paige Neely) who is bi-racial. They are in rehearsal when they learn via social media that a local, Black teenager was shot to death by police. Verb and Peep respond by insisting the injustice be addressed during their performance on The Tonight Show, but Pinnacle vehmently opposes the idea. At the end of their live set watched by millions of TV viewers, Verb protests the police-action shooting in an unexpected way and infuriates Pinnacle, who fears being targeted by racists. The acrimony resulting from the incident threatens to dissolve the trio for good.

FTC performance space rendering. Courtesy of Fonseca Theatre Company. Used with permission.

“Hype Man” portrays the stresses that arise from political engagement. Verb and Pinnacle are childhood friends but now their deep bond  is tested when they have conflicting interests in regard to career success and the struggle for racial equality. Goodwin’s play also poses questions that all artists face when it comes to reacting to social ills by advocating for change through their art.

Under the direction of actor-comedian Daniel A. Martin, Byrne, Grinter and Neely all turned in well-drawn performances, but were hindered by a faulty script that tries to cover too much territory and stretches credulity. The actors’ performances might have been more effective had they delivered dialogue with less volume (which at tims was excessive) during their character’s frequent quarrels and interpreted their lines with more nuance. On the plus side, the performers were at their best during their engaging, hip-hop performing scenes which left me yearning for more. In the end, the actors deseerve praise for making their characters individuals you like, care about and root for.

Fresh off the massive Black Lives Matters protests around the country and throughout the world, “Hype Man” profoundly resonates, especially because of its powerful indictment of police brutality. During a scene in the play where Hype Man, using a bullhorn, rails against police brutality, I could not help but reflect on the irony of FTC being located within earshot of the nearby IMPD district station on King Street. Was it possible any of the officers could hear the actors via the FTC sound system?

Lasting over 75 minutes with no intermission, “Hype Man” moves at a quick pace and despite its imperfections, is pertinent and compelling. And equally important is the fact that upon seeing it, one is reminded how precious live theatre is, especially this kind, that speaks to our  time. True to its mission, FTC is in the vanguard of amplifying the voices of the marginalized and deserves props for leading the charge to bring live performance back to the public square and reminding us why we must never take it for granted.

Tickets for “Hype Man: a break beat play” should be purchased in advance and are $25 for general admission, $20 for 21 and under, and $15 for Near West residents. Performances will be held Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 6:00 p.m. through July 29. For more information, go to fonsecatheatre.org.

photo: Josh Humble

About Tom

Journalist, producer, director, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, arts administrator, TV contributor, actor, model, writer and lyricist, Tom Alvarez has had an extensive career in media and the fine arts and continues to be an enthusiastic and devoted fan of both. His passion and unique background grant him insight, access and perspective to cover, promote and review the arts in Indianapolis, Central Indiana and beyond. Follow him on social media @tomalvarezartswriter and @tomalvarez1.

Alvarez has been writing about theatre, dance, music, cinema and visual arts for 40 years. His work has appeared in the Indianapolis Star, NUVO, Indianapolis Monthly, Arts Indiana, Unite Magazine, Dance Magazine, NOTE Magazine, and Examiner.com, among many other print and online platforms. A former contributor to Across Indiana on WFYI-TV, he currently has a regular performing arts segment on WISH-TV’s Life. Style. Live!

A principal of Klein & Alvarez Productions, LLC, Alvarez co-created “Calder, The Musical” and is the managing director of Magic Thread Cabaret. As an actor-model, he has appeared in numerous TV and print ads and is represented by the Helen Wells Agency and Heyman Talent Artists Agency.

On the Aisle Team

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