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The “Whack” HOW WE GOT ON, is “dope” and “fresh” at Cleveland Play House

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

“The Urban Dictionary,” the ultimate source for the meaning of all words modern, defines rap as a music genre in which the ability of the performer to express himself/herself  is prime.  Specifically, “it’s like poetry with attitude.”  The source goes on to say that “It is hated by many people who believe in the stereo type that only blacks make rap and it’s always about shooting cops, drugs, money, [degradation of women], and sex.”

Seeing the compelling HOW WE GOT ON, now on stage at Cleveland Play House, may open the eyes of many whose understanding of “rap” adheres to negative aspects of “The Urban Dictionary” definition.

In the 1980s, in some parts of the country, there was a migration of upper mobile blacks and Hispanics from the inner city to the suburbs.  In HOW WE GOT ON, we are taken to an inner ring Midwest suburb known as The Hill.  The spotlight shines on three talented high school kids who break with their fellow students’ fascination with hip hop and the inner city version of rap, and experiment with “suburban rap.”  They developed a kind of poetry, set to a series of sounds and music, which, Luann, one of the trio, explains as, “Just dumping out, but your lips must have joy.”

Hank, Julian and Luann carry-on their war of words by dueling with verbalized poetry in parking lots and school stages, dubbing background sounds on a boom box, or by “beatboxing” [“creating vocal percussion sounds”]. They establish that “no two rappers can be in the same place at the same time [in experiences and words].”

As a disk jockey acts as the narrator, the lives of the three kids are looped together as they “discover the power of harmony over discord,”  and the synchronization not only of sound, but of life, itself.

The CPH production is extremely well-conceived and staged by Jaime Castañeda.  Lauren Helpern’s scenic design, even envisioning a believable water tower, Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting designs, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound designs, and Shammy Dee’s musical concepts, taking us back to the sounds of the ‘80s, all work to enhance the 90-minute intermissionless production.

The cast is outstanding.  Not only can the trio rap, they can dance, and create perfectly honed characterizations.

Eric Lockley is mesmerizing as the compact Hank, a young man with a vision and unbridled creativity and energy, who learns early that he is a better suburban rap writer than a performer.  He puts on the character of Hank and wears him throughout with fidelity.

Kim Fisher is physically and charismatically perfect, as Julian, the handsome kid whose father wants him to be a basketball player, but who has performance talents to be a prime rapper, even though he is short on the ability to create the rhyme.  Fischer transforms himself into Julian!

Cyndii Johnson, in a post-show conversation, shared that she had some poetry slam experience but had no rap background before getting the role of Luann.  There was no way of knowing that as she was totally into the moves and sounds of a pro wrapper.  “YO!”

Portia portrays not only the Selector (narrator), but all the adults in the kids’ lives.  She is delightful, captivating and appealing in her various roles, using language of the day, humorous inserts, and parental vocalizations and nonverbal facial expressions and stances to add texture to the show.

This is a production that could not have been nearly as successfully staged in CPH’s previous venue where all the stages were traditional proscenium spaces.  Sitting in the Outcalt’s black box environment which has been transformed into a thrust stage configuration, where the action was right in the center of the audience, made this a special and encompassing experience.

Come early, have a drink at the bar set up center stage, and then stick around and schmooze with the members of the affable cast after the final bows!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH’s production of HOW WE GOT ON is, in the jargon of the ‘80s, “dope” [good].  It opens the door to a “fresh,”[new and acceptable] understanding of suburban rap.  It takes the audience on a journey to view a “whack” [unconventional] side of music and modern poetry that many have not experienced.   In other words, this is an educational, enjoyable, enlightening, and well conceived production!  Yes, it’s a must see experience!

HOW WE GOT ON runs through November 16 in the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen complex at PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to