Hype Man

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday January 30, 2018

Kadahj Bennett, Rachel Cognata and Michael Knowlton in Company One Theatre's premiere production of 'Hype Man'
Kadahj Bennett, Rachel Cognata and Michael Knowlton in Company One Theatre's premiere production of 'Hype Man'   (Source:Paul Fox/Company One)

In musical parlance -- hip hop, yes, but it's also rooted in more vintage forms like soul, at least of the James Brown variety -- the "Hype Man" is the guy on stage who's more than a backup singer: Not the front man, but the front man's echo, in a way; the guy who underscores the front man's performance.

That's what Verb (Kadahj Bennett) does for Pinnacle (Michael Knowlton): He Pinnacle might write the words, but it's Verb who textures and sells them, creating the vocal neon that lights up Pinnacle's structure's of imagery and wordplay. Creating the beats from which their vocal tapestries hang is band newcomer Peep One (Rachel Cognata), and it's a good thing she's so talented because she's also the only one who can manage to operate the studio equipment.

Pinnacle and Verb have been best friends since grade school; they're practically brothers, as well as artistic collaborators. Perched on the brink of mainstream success, they're suddenly faced with a crisis when an unarmed local teenager -- an African American male -- is gunned down by police, shot eighteen times because he was speeding and didn't stop when the cops wanted him to. The fact he was rushing to the hospital to see his dying grandmother doesn't make a difference to his tragic outcome.

For Verb -- who is Black -- this is an injustice that has to be addressed, and not solely for artistic reasons. The band has a gig booked on "The Tonight Show," and it would be unforgivable not to step up and use their platform to protest. For Pinnacle -- who is white -- the situation is infuriating and intolerable, but not the sort of thing he wishes to mix into his set. After all, they're there to entertain -- and, not incidentally, to grow their brand. Peep One, conscious both of her newcomer status (and the fact that she's a woman playing in the boys' sandbox) and also her own status as a woman of color, the situation presents an impossible twist on intersectionality. It's a no-win conundrum for the band, and she does her best to keep herself out of the crosshairs.

Playwright Idris Goodwin has gone out of his way to create this knotty problem, and the people who have to coexist in its shadow. With crackling contemporary dialogue that's universally accessible while still being specific to a time and -- more crucially -- a place, pacing that winds things up notch by inevitable notch, and a structure that allows for episodes of musical performance (boasting the talents of Bennett, who also serves as Music Director and Beat Maker), "Hype Man" speaks with passion (and also compassion) to the racial wrongs, the hierarchies of power differentials, and the seemingly insurmountable divisions of our times.

The cast are fantastic, one and all, communicating layers of anger, exasperation, hope, affection, betrayal, and bone-deep, primal conviction -- all stuff they struggle against, but also stuff that serves as an immovable backdrop for the coruscating human emotions they delineate.

With this world premiere production, director Shawn LaCount achieves what Company One Theatre so often does: Viscerally powerful, socially important, and artistically innovative theater.

So: See this? Let's be clear -- it's not even a question. See this.

"Hype Man" continues through Feb. 24 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to https://companyone.org/production/hype-man-break-beat-play

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.