In the hip-hop performance world, the hype man is a key player. He’s a musical people-mover, backing the main performer with a pointed “hey!,” “Yea!,’ “Uh-huh!” and just about any repeated exclamation that might excite a crowd or invite its response. In “Hype Man: A Break Beat Play,” a flat piece that’s frequently difficult to understand in InterAct Theatre Company’s production, the hype man is a black artist named Verb. He backs the front man, a white guy named Pinnacle. The two have been friends since they were kids, and now they’re living their dreams.
They’ve teamed up with a woman who works the sound board, Peep One — her job is to supply the rhythms for the songs Pinnacle writes and later performs. Their artistic lives are on the move. Newest gig: “The Tonight Show.”
And that’s when things fall apart.
At the end of their song on national TV, Verb throws in a message that’s not the usual hype-man interjection. He pulls back his black jacket to show his T-shirt bearing a slogan about a boy who was recently shot dead by police after leading the officers on a chase. That killing is sparking passionate protest, and on “The Tonight Show,” Verb uses his forum, and his T-shirt, to support the protesters.
In effect, Verb has taken a knee, but in a more urgent way; he’s thrown his weight directly into a developing story, becoming a part of it. This, he says, is what he must do. His partner Pinnacle says it’s the wrong thing to do — Pinnacle’s extended family includes a policemen and members of the military. Although Verb and Pinnacle have grown up together and shared the same hand-to-mouth existence, their different races set them apart. How could that not be? Neither is really able to live in the other’s shoes.
What a great set-up for a play, which is why I wish “Hype Man,” by the busy theater artist Idris Goodwin, were more focused. It’s a kitchen-sink drama, in that it’s packed with everything but. Its main theme about using (or abusing) celebrity is up against lots of smaller themes: race relations among friends, being adopted, learning your roots through DNA testing, the abuse aimed at or committed by police, getting into and out of show-biz contracts, and loyalty, to name a few. These ideas — including the main one — go nowhere; “Hype Man” is more an 80-minute character study of three people who work together than it is a plotted story.
Some people might find that enough. I wanted more, particularly because all these themes are meaty and merit a fuller look. Director Ozzie Jones gives the play a nice sense of movement even though it often fails to move intellectually, and Apollo Mark Weaver’s eye-catching set doubles as a basic rehearsal studio and a stage for performing hip hop.
Carlo Campbell’s moody performance as Verb is on the money, and Bianca Sanchez imparts a sense of mystery to Peep One, the woman who makes the beats. Kyle Glenn’s portrayal of Pinnacle is a problem — in affecting a street patois, he marble-mouths his lines. He often under-delivers them, fine for a film with sound engineering but in the live theater at InterAct, one word is often indistinguishable from another. I get it — he’s developed a character of a white dude who’s tough but has to fit in the ‘hood, so he doesn’t stand out except when he’s hip-hopping on stage. Still, we need to know what he’s saying.
“Hype Man: A Break Beat Play,”produced by InterAct Theatre Company, runs through Feb. 17 at at the Proscenium Theatre on the side of the Drake Apartments, on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th Streets. 215-568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.