‘Read: White and Blue’: Short, two-act play is never less than engaging

September 17, 2012

Hip-hop theater duo Hueman Prophets — Baye Harrell, a.k.a. StraightForward, and Jabari Exum, a.k.a. AuraGin — gives the silly and the serious equal weight in the short two-act play “Read: White and Blue.” Although the piece, running at Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab through Sunday, ruminates on art, life and social class, it gives its talented creators much leeway to pull their audience’s collective leg.

Things get off to a droll start. Painted flats denote two characters’ living spaces, with walls, a radiator and a fireplace. The lithe Exum and the bespectacled Harrell enter through two doors and sit on cubes, silently surveying their audience. They do this for so long that giggles erupt. Prerecorded voices of supposedly restless theatergoers ask in annoyance, “Are they professional?”; “Is there an intermission?”; “Why did I even come here? I don’t even listen to rap”; and simply, “I don’t get it.” The actors then take a bow and seem ready to exit.

They’re not. They put on T-shirts with the phrase “Young Black Male” on the front, and their play gets going for real, with the text still heard only in voice-over audio. The two are perhaps in an elevator or on a Metro railcar. Harrell, whose character carries the name “Author,” glances sidelong at Exum, who plays “Illustrator.” It takes a while for us to understand that Illustrator is really a character Author is developing in his head. As the recorded audio gives way to live dialogue, it’s clear that Author, educated and middle-class, has trouble visualizing and understanding this young man, supposedly a product of the inner-city and recently of the prison system. Illustrator keeps changing as Author reimagines him. Is he a criminal? Or is he a nurturer and a great dad to some little boy? A charming scene imagines Illustrator inventing a lyrical bedtime fable for a young boy, played by Author.

During the first act, the writer’s fantasies and conflicting ideas about his protagonist come to life in an oblique way, with Exum and Harrell using rap, stylized movement and graphics. The second act, which feels a little padded, seems to interpret what occurred in the first act as straight narrative. Illustrator becomes a young man just out of prison, determined to go straight and start a witty T-shirt graphics business. Author becomes so obsessed with developing Illustrator’s character that he forgets to eat the dinner his wife cooks for him.

At a mere 65 minutes, “Read: White and Blue” is never less than engaging. Even when the piece occasionally obscures its meaning in Act 1 or grows repetitive in Act 2, Harrell and Exum, directed winningly by Psalmayene 24, move it forward with infectious energy and charm.

Telling their tale with rap, movement, music and straight-up dialogue, Exum and Harrell stretch out their core idea too thinly. “Read: White and Blue” might make an excellent one-act paired with something else. Still, the Hueman Prophet duo’s skill and likability — they’ve been friends since school, and the chemistry shows — make Mead Theatre Lab a good place to spend an hour-and-a-bit with them as they suss out their writer-character-class conundrum.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

Read: White and Blue

by Jabari Exum and Baye Harrell of Hueman Prophets. Directed by Psalmayene 24. Scenic design, Erin Cumbo; lighting and graphic design, John D. Alexander; costume/wardrobe consultant, Luqman Salim; choreography consultant, Paige Hernandez; turntablist, Ron Brown, a.k.a. DJ RBI. About 65 minutes. Presented by CulturalDC through Sunday at Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St. NW. Call 202-315-1310 or go to culturaldc.org.

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