Thursday, March 7, 2013

Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) is currently presenting How We Got On, an original stage play by Idris Goodwin. The play is set in the late 1980s, and is about three Midwestern teenagers who fall in love with hip hop and pursue their dreams of making it to Yo! MTV Raps and beyond. It’s described as a tale about the joy of hip hop and not letting geography or people put boundaries on your dreams.

Tickets to How We Got On are $18-$28, and there are five remaining showtimes at CAST (located at 2424 N. Davidson St., Suite 113, Charlotte, 704-455-8542):
  • Friday, March 8, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 9, 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, March 10, 2:30 p.m.
  • Friday, March 15, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 16, 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, March 17, 2:30 p.m.

Carolina Actors Studio Theatre rehearsal of How We Got On. Credit: Shannon J. Hager/CAST

I had the opportunity to talk to Idris by phone—he’s in Colorado where he teaches at Colorado College. I talked to him about how the play came about, why Charlotte audiences should go see it, and his thoughts on the impact hip hop has had over the last 25 years.

Playwright Idris Goodwin. Credit: Facebook

How did you come to write How We Got On?
I was enrolled in the University of Iowa’s playwright workshop a couple of years ago. It was my first semester there and I wanted to write something that reflected me, where I come from, and what I’m about. I decided to write what I know, as they say, and so I know a lot about hip hop and growing up in the Midwest as a hip hop fan. So I wanted to explore that theatrically in a way that I hadn’t seen. There’s definitely pieces of theatre that has spoken about hip hop or reflected hip hop, but I’d never seen anything set outside of an urban area, set like in the suburban Midwest, that was a coming-of-age story, that wasn’t political or wasn’t sociopolitical, that was really just sort of a traditional American coming-of-age story but done in a hip hop style.

So I wrote it, and people responded to it very well right away. It was a very quick turnaround. I had the opportunity to go to the Eugene O’Neill Theater [Young Playwrights] Festival, which is an annual development workshop for new plays, to kind of kick the tires and make them better. The play went there in 2011; then in 2012 it had a world premiere at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. And this year it’s in Charlotte; then it’s going to a theater in Sacramento and a theater in Boston this summer.

A typical hip hop audience might not be large consumers of theatre. What have you experienced with audiences so far?
Primarily speaking, this play is for a theatre-going audience. Now, there have been some non-theatre goers who have trickled in because they’re like, ‘This is a play about hip hop, about ’88, about Yo! MTV Raps.’ There’s a connection there. When I was in Louisville, I had great conversations with people who had never been to the Actors Theatre before and came because of the show specifically. But by and large it’s a traditional theatre-going audience. The play is written with that in mind. Ultimately, I’m just trying to share the things that I think are beautiful about hip hop culture. But what’s at the root of it is a story about friendship, about young artists—it has a hip hop rhythm to it—but ultimately it’s a story like any other play. At its core it’s about something really central, really universal. For me, the hip hop is what makes it different, what makes it unique, what makes it like not every other play that’s on the American stage right now.

I’ve seen photos of the set. It’s very nostalgic. Is that what you were going for?
Guys my age and older—I’m 35. I was born in ’77 and I remember all of this stuff because hip hop has always been around. As I’ve grown I’ve sort of mirrored hip hop’s growth as well. And ’88 is like that golden era for hip hop purists. So I knew that working with those iconic songs, symbols like the boombox—I knew that would conjure up people’s memories like, ‘Wow, I remember that. I was there when that was new.’ We see that sort of nostalgia on VH1 specials or on certain albums, but on the American theatre stage we don’t see it very much. I feel like for those who are of that era and who remember that era, it’ll be a nice surprise. And even those who aren’t from that era, it can remind them of where this comes from. The play also kind of gives a history lesson too—educates folks on things they might not have thought of. People see two turntables and a mic, but they don’t really know how that works. It was important to put those things on the stage and have them be central to the story.

What do you think of the impact of hip hop since that era?
The play is set in 1988 for a reason. That was the year Yo! MTV Raps hit the world, and that took hip hop out of just the New York boroughs and urban populated areas, and brought it to the world. I’ve heard the theory that the reason Barack Obama is president has something to do with hip hop. I don’t disagree with that. Hip hop at its root is a challenge to cultural norms, it is a challenge to a homogeneous White America. It’s basically saying that we can be multiracial, that we can use multiple types of slang, we can be full of contradiction, and we can be loud, and that we can express ourselves. People think that hip hop is just a black, street thing, but you have kids all over the world who are [breakdancing], who are making beats and chopping up samples, and all this kind of stuff. It’s deeper than just 50 Cent on the cover of [a hip hop] magazine with a bulletproof vest on. It’s deeper than that; it’s a whole ethos. It’s a whole way of approaching life and other people. Ultimately it’s bringing people together.

Right now I’m teaching a hip hop class at Colorado College, which is a small, liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This is a largely white city, it’s a largely white student body. My hip hop classes are packed and a lot of them are really impressed; a lot of them are really diving right into it with verve. I’ve seen the power of it everywhere. To the same degree that there are things we don’t like about hip hop, those things are minimal in comparison to the positive impact that it’s had. It’s deep and it’s not going anywhere. It’s only going to continue to grow and morph and change. Hip hop is so large and multifaceted. It’s so all-encompassing.


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