Idris Goodwin's savvy new play "How We Got On," premiering on the West Coast at the B Street Theatre, is full of affecting surprises. Though the story is set in 1988 suburban Midwest America using the birth of hip-hop music and culture as its backdrop, Goodwin tells a resonant coming-of-age story for a new generation.
The title refers to the idea of making it in hip-hop, which is what its three characters want. Their wary engagement and eventual collaboration subtly mirror the music's early development.
Terrell Donnell Sledge's Hank studies hip-hop as intently as his father wants him to study algebra. Hank writes rhymes, creating songs by imitating what he sees on the new show "Yo, MTV Raps!" He's a suburban black kid into urban rap music, which makes him fairly unique on "The Hill" where he lives.
Hank soon crosses paths with Brian Quijada's Julian the only other kid in their neighborhood into the new music. The two join up, working off of each other's strengths, with Hank writing and producing and Julian performing. Deonna Bouye's Luann, a closet rapper from an affluent black family, eventually becomes the essential third ingredient of the fledgling "crew."
The trio is joined by an excellent PaSean Wilson as the omniscient Selector, who narrates the story and serves as musical conductor of sorts.
Funny and insightful, the production delves deeply and smartly into the history of hip-hop with thorough authenticity but also with a mainstream accessibility. The play works as a knowing time capsule, referencing hip-hop classics of the era such as Public Enemy's album "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," N.W.A's album "Straight Outta Compton," Slick Rick's album "The Great Adventures of Slick Rick" and seminal artists such as MC Lyte and Big Daddy Kane. Will Smith was still the Fresh Prince and the greatest rap song of all time was "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.
Though dealing with an art form superficially known for glorifying gangsta lifestyles and questionable accessories choices, the characters here are articulate black and Latino high school kids who have homework, involved parents and after-school jobs. Jerry Springer could not get a show out of these people.
The standout cast of Sledge, Quijada and Bouye has been with the play since it was developed at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., and premiered at the 2012 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky. Their timing on the live hip-hop effects, which sparkle throughout the play, are just part of skilled performances they all present. The essential musical score was composed by Elisheba Ittoop.
Director Buck Busfield effectively manages the effortless pace and playwright Goodwin masterfully layers the rich elements of his story without overplaying his hand or overstaying his welcome.
This production should not be missed.
How We Got On
What: The West Coast premiere of Idris Goodwin's coming-of-age story set in the early stages of hip-hop music.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. Sundays, through June 23.
Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St.
Tickets: $23-$35, $5 student rush
Information: call (916) 443-5300 or go to www.bstreettheatre.org
Running time: 80 minutes, with no intermission
Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.