Anthony Bean, the energetic and audacious founder of his namesake theater and acting school, is currently presenting the premiere of Unplugged, a hip-hop musical he wrote and directed. There's plenty of song and dance, and they are pure pleasure. A three-piece band (keyboard, bass guitar and drums) provides the rocking accompaniment for a cornucopia of songs " some written by Bean, some by the vocal group and some by rapper Tony Felix, who also appears in the play. In the bigger numbers, the group is joined by dancers. Everyone is flexible as though made of rubber and dances with such freedom and joy that you feel the weight of the years on your shoulders as you watch them. And this is not a 'Springtime in Paris" type evocation, unless you mean the Paris of Josephine Baker (whom the French, of course, adored). The dances look more like fertility rites transplanted to urban America; a tip of the hat goes to choreographer Arieuna McGee.
Unplugged is the name of the hip-hop group that is the focus of this backstage drama, which is driven by several young men as they mature professionally and personally. Almost all the musical numbers are straight-ahead performances by the group. This action takes place on a center section of stage against brilliant, shimmering backgrounds (designed by Chad Talkington). Off to one side is the dressing room. From time to time, other locations are suggested " like when the stage transforms into a gay night club, featuring the glamorous Miss Imari (Stephon Guidry)
The group Unplugged is hot in several ways: musically, of course, but also commercially. In fact, it is the hottest new hip-hop act in the country. In the opening number, which is a medley of original songs, they get to show their stuff and get the audience in the mood. It's not long before complications threaten the fragile stability of this dream team. In the middle of the first number, Ray Ray (Christian Foster), one of singers, gives a troubled glance at the audience, then flees the stage. Later, we meet him lurking unhappily in the dressing room. The group's manager Clarence (Damany Cormier) bursts in and begins beseeching and berating him. Ray Ray admits he fled the stage because of a woman he spotted in the audience. She's not a stalker or heart throb gone sour. The woman is his mother (Donna King). She will be forbidden from the group's performances, Clarence assures. He adds a second theme to the narrative when he hugs Ray Ray with suggestive intimacy.
We've become accustomed to the idea of hip-hoppers and rappers as being street tough and smooth. We don't tend to think of them as having tormented childhoods or struggling with their sexual identity. Doctor Freud, of course, might have been suspicious of all that macho swagger and the dismissing of women as 'hos" " sex objects for hire. In any case, the guys in Unplugged are not scary. They're a likable, talented bunch. They live under the strict discipline of the manager, and they worry about keeping their career on track.
But what about this messy situation with Ray Ray's mom, for instance? She wants to see her boy, but he refuses to meet with her or even let her come to his concerts. It would seem like a virtual feeding frenzy for tabloid media. And what about the rumors of homosexuality floating around these matinee-idol-type pop stars who need the adoration of adolescent girls to push their latest release up the charts. It's the high price of celebrity, you might say. But on a more personal level, there are real sexual insecurities and jealousies to deal with. At any moment, the group could break up. One or two members could go off on their own, partly to spite the others.
These emotional storms are often engaging, but the aggregate is a bit long. The musical numbers are crucial to keeping the audience engaged and sympathetic. Some trimming and tightening wouldn't hurt the script.
The band members " Christian Foster, Alvin Green, Eric Williams and Leroy Jamal Stewart " do an excellent job. A bravo goes to Bean as well for continuing to produce challenging new productions.
- Ray Ray (Christian Foster, center) is a young hip-hop artist in Unplugged.