A would-be rapper stranded in 1980s Midwestern suburbs, 15-year-old Hank loses his first battle-of-the-rhymes. The onlookers who give the kid a thumbs-down during the match — mounted in a mall parking lot — can’t be judging him on likability and vim. Certainly as played by Manu Kumasi in Forum Theatre’s “How We Got On,” Hank radiates so much gusto and goofy, mercurial charm that you almost expect all of middle America to convert to hip-hop fandom.
Kumasi’s channeling of the excitable Hank is a highlight of this touching and funny, if not wholly gripping, production, directed by Paige Hernandez and billed as a regional premiere. First produced in 2012 at the esteemed Humana Festival, Idris Goodwin’s play is a thoughtful coming-of-age tale enriched with hip-hop lyricism, insights about creativity and a lovingly wry perspective on the ’80s. But, at least in this staging, the teenage central characters — including Hank’s rival-turned-friend, Julian (Thony Mena) — come across as so good-natured and fundamentally well-adjusted that their extracurricular rap projects, at the center of the story, don’t generate much suspense.
Further softening the tale’s dramatic urgency is the character the Selector (Alina Collins Maldonado), a DJ-narrator figure who comments on the action, usually from her perch at a raised turntable station. (The station, not far from a graffiti-swirled wall, helps anchor the roomy set, designed by John Bowhers.) The Selector’s knowing observations give the play a feeling of literary depth, but they also distance us from the characters’ quandaries and passions. The Selector also periodically stands in for Hank’s and Julian’s fathers — a conceit that, at least here, given Maldonado’s largely humorous approach, tends to play down the family conflicts hinted at in the script.
Still, this “How We Got On” contains many winning comic moments, and its sampling of the excitement that surrounded rap culture in the ’80s is flavorful and sometimes infectious. A spoken-word artist and essayist as well as a playwright, Goodwin has suited form to content here: The dialogue often displays a pulsing poetry that recalls the “dope lyrics” in Hank’s favorite music. When Julian discovers the style of vocal percussion that is beatboxing, for instance, the Selector comments on “That moment of spark / Recognition that music lives in the body / Knows no Zip code / is not beholden to any brass, woodwind, strings / reeds . . . .”
The characters, too, occasionally stutter a word in a percussive manner, as if a skilled DJ were manipulating vinyl. Hernandez, who has often explored the theater/hip-hop continuum as a choreographer, gives such moments a confident stylized physicality: An actor repeating a word will echo the effect with a stuttering, robotic movement. The production also includes sequences of buoyant break dancing.
The performers portraying the teenage characters do a particularly good job of marrying stylization with naturalism. Mena gives Julian a nice mix of callowness, arrogance and amiability. (Costume designer Frank Labovitz devised Hank’s and Julian’s sweats-and-high-tops look, as well as the other attire.) Kashayna Johnson is adorable as Luann, a rich kid with a gift for improvising rhymes.
Most significantly, Kumasi does a marvelous job capturing Hank’s naivete, enthusiasm and kookiness, sometimes shuttling through several emotions over the course of just one sentence, with facial expressions and bold body language to match. Hank would love to appear on “Yo! MTV Raps,” a program that was new in his era. Don’t bet against him.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Idris Goodwin. Directed by Paige Hernandez; assistant director/fight director, Megan Behm; lighting design, Christopher Annas-Lee; sound, Thomas Sowers; props, Gina Grundman. About 80 minutes. Tickets: $30-$35. Through Nov. 22 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Call 301-588-8279 or visit www.forum-theatre.com.