Writer: NSangou Njikam
Director: Niegel Smith
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
In a July episode of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, Hip Hop DJs Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito describe the genre in the mid- to late-1980s as evolving into something “political and wonderfully Black-conscious.” NSangou Njikam’s play Syncing Ink, playing at The Flea’s new space The Sam, taps into that energy of late 1980s hip hop. Yoruban deities (called Orishas), suburban high school drama, and family legacy take the play’s central character, Gordon (playwright NSangou Njikam), on a journey to find his voice as a freestyle rapper.
The first act is contained in the pressure cooker of Langston Hughes High, where Gordon, along with his classmates master emcee Jamal (Nuri Hazzard), opportunistic beatboxer Ice Cold (Elisha Lawson), whip-smart Sweet Tea (Kara Young), and sexy, world-wise Mona Lisa (McKenzie Frye) connect hip hop with traditional poetry in Mr. Wright’s (Adesola A. Osakalumi) AP English class. While everyone else in class is as comfortable rapping as they are writing the haikus Mr. Wright assigns, Gordon is paralyzed with fear at the prospect of freestyling rhymes, even though that’s what he wants to do most. Gordon’s father, who had his own dreams of being an emcee, encourages him, pointing out that Gordon’s first words were rhymes from The Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight. This isn’t enough to make Gordon an emcee, though. He excels in writing verse but those skills don’t translate to freestyle rhymes. When his attempts to hold his own against Jamal in a rap battle result in humiliation, he vows never to freestyle again. The second act follows him to college at HBCU Mecca University, where his high school friend Sweet Tea insists that he needs to give hip hop another chance and his professors debate the artistic merit of written and spoken word. Eventually Gordon has to confront his fears in order to do his family legacy proud in a freestyle battle reminiscent of his high school humiliation.
Though the plot of Syncing Ink sounds hokey, its writing and execution reveal it to be anything but trite. The characters are all symbolic of Orishas guiding Gordon on his journey of self-actualization. The play’s connection with Yoruban folklore combined with the rhythm of its music and rhymes makes for engaging theatre. Njikam’s exploration of the relationship between Gordon’s high school haikus and his freestyle rhymes is especially interesting in the way it addresses the treatment of literature and popular culture. The question, “do Black words only matter if they’re written down?,” is particularly profound, reminding us that the oral tradition in Black America is in part rooted in necessity, since slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write.
Backed by DJ Reborn, the cast moves effortlessly among multiple roles. Kara Young as Sweet Tea stands out in particular; she is so present in her every moment on stage that she captures the audience’s attention even when her character is not the focus of the action. Claudia Brown’s costumes honor the color symbolism of Orishas without being heavy-handed. The choreography, by Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio, incorporates West African and hip hop dance in ways that highlight the connections between the two.
Although Syncing Ink manages to be powerful and fun at the same time, the last third of the play has fairly predictable beats; we know that Gordon will persevere and that we can safely anticipate a happy ending. Of course, the ending is sweet and touching and the music makes you want to stick around to dance, so there’s really not much to complain about. Even folks who don’t think they’re into hip hop may change their minds by the end of the show.
Runs until 29 October 2017 | Image: Joan Marcus