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Preview: Available Light’s ‘How We Got On’ Returns to the Columbus Stage

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Preview: Available Light’s ‘How We Got On’ Returns to the Columbus StageDavid Jamell, Rudy Frias, Wilma Hatton, and Treasure Davidson in Available Light's How We Got On. Photo courtesy Available Light.
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Idris Goodwin’s How We Got On might be my favorite production from all my years watching Available Light. Writing for my old personal blog, it was my #1 show of 2014. In my review, I called it, “One of the most perfect examples of how richly satisfying that kind of play [about making art and discovery, Available Light’s sweet spot] can be and executed [perfectly],” where “The hunger to be heard, to be seen, to be understood, is palpable and catchy enough that I still [had] two of the songs from the show in my head months later.”

I think How We Got On is a perfect pick for Available Light’s first remount/revival of work not originated by the company. I was lucky enough to speak with both Artistic Director Matt Slaybaugh and director Drew Eberly about this new production.

Drew Eberly called it one of his favorite Available Light works and said, “It’s really cool to bring it back, it felt like there’s possibly more of an audience this play might speak to.” Matt Slaybaugh said, “[Of the original Humana Festival production] I’ve rarely seen an audience so unified in appreciation of a play. I am a huge hip-hop head (and I grew up in the same era as Idris) and I love how he’s managed to bring it into his theater work. Most plays that attempt to integrate hip-hop end up being really limp, but Idris managed to make a piece that’s like Rap Music 101 for newbies but still has plenty of inside jokes for the devotees. That and the inspirational spirit of the characters brings everybody in the room together in a way that’s really unusual. We want to share that experience with more people.”

One of the exciting elements of this production of How We Got On is its trajectory around the city. Eberly said, “We thought this could find a home on college campuses and in spaces frequented by people who aren’t our typical downtown, Riffe Center-going audience. The Lincoln has a great history for African-American culture and it made sense for this play where every character is non-White dealing with hip-hop and adapting to the suburbs.” Slaybaugh said, “Available Light is on a mission to build a non-traditional theatre audience by meeting new people. We learned a lot from our Columbus Voices Workshop and it’s now an integral part of our work. So we’re getting out of the Riffe, where we usually perform, and taking our work to places that are new for us. In January and February, we’ll be visiting several schools and a library or two. The Columbus Libraries were great hosts for the Columbus Voices Workshop, and we’re planning to visit neighborhoods that are further away from downtown. Like our Pay What You Want program, our travels around Columbus are about creating new opportunities for people to experience Available Light.” Eberly also commented this is not the end of Available Light’s touring as he intends to take his original Dear Piqua around the city and out of town later this season.

Rudy Frias, David Jamell, Treasure Davidson, and Wilma Hatton in Available Light’s How We Got On. Photo courtesy Available Light.

How We Got On introduced parts of Columbus to many of our finest actors with providing breakout roles for Rudy Frias, David Glover, and Wilma Hatton. Eberly confirmed those three are reprising their roles in the remount with one substitution. “Kayla Jackmon, who played Luann, moved to Brooklyn. Doing a lot of education and performance, doing really, really well. So we have a new actress in that role, Treasure Davidson. She brings her own energy to this and the project’s completely new to her. That’s kind of keeping everyone honest and not just relaxing into a project that was, by our standards, certainly successful the first time around.

“[Davidson]’ a great actress, she’s got an MFA, and she’s done Shakespeare. Any time you’ve got a classically trained, experienced actress, and the direction is ‘Okay, you’re a high school girl who wants to be a rapper… go,’ you get something interesting. She and the other actors get to play the discovery and not the polish. In rehearsals, they’ve commented, ‘I didn’t nail that rap.’ Well, great. Would you have at 15?”

We talked about the different levels of experience with the ’80s hip-hop the play deals with, both in the cast and the audience. Eberly said, “It’s funny, we’re about half and half. David Glover and I go way back, one of my best friends, we worked together on History Boys. When I called to talk about the part he said, ‘You know, I don’t know much about hip-hop.’ The other side of the coin is I did grow up in the suburbs discovering all of these artists referenced in the script, my brother and I had all those albums. Wilma Hatton grew up in Columbus and told us all about how those artists were seen in those days and what that era was like. Rudy Frias had a background in rap but Treasure Davidson didn’t have a strong relationship with hip-hop growing up.”

Eberly went on, “David Glover, not obsessed with hip-hop, said the play’s really about kids falling in love with art. I was into hip-hop the first 10 or 15 years of my love and in High School it was all indie rock. The passion and talking about it with friends, finding people who love it too, that was all the same.”

Slaybaugh commented from the audience perspective, “This script has an astonishing mix of specific, personal authenticity and universal appeal. Last time we did the play, people who were into hip-hop in 1988 (and before) were nodding their heads to every shout out and allusion in the play. But at the same time, we heard from a ton of people who said, ‘I don’t know anything about hip-hop, but I loved it.'”

Eberly concurred, “I think that audiences will see their young selves in this play whether they know hip-hop or not. If rap was a part of your life, you’re going to love the history woven into the play. If it’s not, you’re going to love getting caught up in these characters.”

How We Got On runs November 9 through 12 at Riffe Center Studio Two with additional dates around the Columbus Area through January. For tickets and more details, visit avltheatre.com.

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