Who is responsible for speaking up about injustice? Does having a platform oblige an artist to take a stand? These are the questions posed by “Hype Man” by Elliott Norton Award-winning playwright and poet Idris Goodwin. The newly hybrid play-film, streaming as part of Virtually Oberon, follows three hip-hop artists as they wrestle with these questions from their rehearsal space to the stage and the streets and back again, against a backdrop of racist violence and inequality.
White rapper Pinnacle (Michael Knowlton) and his Black hype man (Kadahj Bennett) are readying for their debut television appearance when their MC, Peep One (Rachel Cognata), the newest member of the trio and a woman who identifies as mixed-race, bursts in with news of a police chase. When the three learn that a Black 17-year-old has been shot and killed, their friendship — and shared professional journey — is shaken.
The work clearly feels of the moment, arriving amid the high-profile trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of murdering George Floyd in May of last year. The dark irony, Goodwin explained, is that this piece had been in the works for years and was debuted by Company One in 2018.
Speaking during an American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) “Lunch Room” conversation on Tuesday, Goodwin talked about the genesis of “Hype Man,” the third of the “break beat” plays (following “How We Got On” and “The Realness”) that he’s been writing for the last 10 years. Although both of these earlier works are also set in the hip-hop world, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing in 2012 “and so many others,” he said, other questions began to arise. Goodwin recalled seeing rapper/producer David Banner at the 2014 BET Hip Hop Awards ask, “Where were all the white rappers standing when Mike Brown got gunned down?” The question had resonance for Goodwin, who professes a love of ’90s hip-hop. “Hip-hop is so much about representation,” he said. “Where you come from, about you and yours. But there is a line: It’s a very Black art form, but it is largely controlled by non-Black people.”