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Theatre Review: A hot show blending hip hop and history, How We Got On is an energy packed ride

 Lisa Much Theatre Review: A hot show blending hip hop and history, How We Got On is an energy packed ride
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Kayla Jackmon (Luann) and David Glover (Hank) in Available Light’s production of “How We Got On” by Idris Goodwin. Photo by Matt Slaybaugh.

Last night, in the bitter chill of the Central Ohio winter, a hot show opened that blends hip hop and history, dreams and reality, winning and losing. Available Light Theatre’s production of Idris Goodwin’s How We Got On provides a fresh and poignant look at three suburban teens looking to get out and get on.

Under the guidance of The Selector, a DJ/narrator who manipulates the play like a record, the show centers on the lives of three fifteen year old suburbanites struggling to find themselves in 1988. Hank, one of the first black kids to move to The Hill, a generic suburb of a Midwestern city, wants to write the greatest suburban rap, but finds opposition to pursuing this from his strait-laced, college-driven father. Julian, a more recent transplant from the city, attends the other high school and faces a less nurturing home life where he bounces between activities for paternal approval. Luann feeds her addiction to rhymes despite her father’s harsh disapproval and yearns to record her words. The three teens work, fight, and play together as they come to grips with themselves amidst a backdrop of suburban sprawl and Yo! MTV Raps.

The performers all do a phenomenal job and create a cohesive show that flows quite nicely. Wilma Hatton permeates every cranny of the space as The Selector. Her big, bold voice guides the show, pausing for reflection on the characters and providing hip hop history lessons ranging from albums and artists to recording technology, while also portraying the teen’s fathers. Her energy alone could light the stage.

(l to r) Rudy Frias as Julian and Wilma Hatton as The Selector, in Available Light's production of "How We Got On" by Idris Goodwin. Photo by Matt Slaybaugh.

David Glover (Hank) and Rudy Frias (Julian) strike a fine balance between the quieter, quasi-nerd, sensitive type and louder, brasher, subtle sensitive type. Playing fifteen can prove challenging, but the actors find that energy—the excitement inherent in youth and possibility as well as the general angst, without going too far. Kayla Jackmon plays a passionate, vivacious, and sassy yet innocent Luann. While fun and light-hearted most of the time, the play provides two moments of pivotal power that serve as self-discovery for both Hank and Julian, which take place upon—what else in the suburbs—a water tower.

Of course, in a show where all the characters want to rap, it should go without stating that the performers must rap as well (or beat box for Frias). Their words flow effortlessly from their mouths, whether in an off-hand moment, a pizza place rap battle, or an epic, dream-like performance. They make it look easy. Kudos to the performers for acting and rapping quite well.
Director Drew Eberly paces this show impeccably and grounds a hyperbolized fable into a tangible tale. The rhythm of the show makes it feel short, but not without substance or entertainment. Traverse style staging, while fun for this show (pick A side or B side), presents their own set of challenges, but Eberly and the design team overcome all of them.

Darin Keesing’s lighting frames fun pictures without ostracizing either side of the audience. He also creates glorious shadows dancing up the walls in the final moments of the show; those must be noted. Michelle Whited’s costumes match the performers’ energy. Dave Wallingford accomplishes the finest sound design in the city by beautifully mixing microphones and truly integrating music into countless moments of the show, effectively eradicating transitions by designing a seamless scope of sound. The show feels almost cinematic.

How We Got On offers an opportunity for many to learn about a genre they may know little about while reminiscing about a time when they too possessed uninhibited dreams. It is an energy-packed ride that should not disappoint.

How We Got On runs until February 22, at Studio One in the Vern Riffe Center, 77 S. High Street. Thurs.-Sat. at 8 pm; Sun. at 2 pm. Talk backs occur after every Thursday and Friday performance. Pay what you want.
More information can be found online at avltheatre.com.

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