It is easier to write a negative review than it is to write a positive one. There are objective-sounding reasons to dislike a thing: bad acting, sloppy direction, unfocused writing. You might disagree with me sometimes on whether any or all of these bad things was present in any given play or performance, but you can’t deny that bad acting, sloppy direction, and unfocused writing, if present, will ruin a play. All I have to do is claim to have spotted any one of these things in any part of the evening’s performance, and you will understand why I didn’t like the play. Reviewer’s job: done.
A good play, though, requires more thought. A good play is more than just a lack of bad things. It’s not enough to say, “the acting was good, the direction was precise, the writing was focused.” While one bad thing can ruin a play, it takes more than all the good things in the world to make one.
Or to put it another way: all bad plays are bad in pretty much the exact same ways, but every good one is unique in its goodness.
“How We Got On,” by Idris Goodwin is a very good play.
It had a lot to overcome. When I heard that it was about rappers, I was expecting a bunch of cliches. “This is not the story of how rap emerged from the South Bronx and Compton,” says the Selector, a narrator figure who also plays a bunch of off-screen characters, “though that story is no doubt beautiful.” (Note: I do not have the script in front of me. All quotations are from memory, and are imprecise). This is, instead, the story of three teenagers — two African-American, one Latino — growing up in a mostly-white midwestern suburb (“maybe Michigan, Indiana, or Ohio”) in the late 80s, who discover hiphop culture mostly through television, and who find in it, and in one another, a cultural connection to something larger and more challenging and complex than anything they are being handed at school to think about, as well as an opportunity for creative expression. Their quest to create the “ultimate suburban rap song” over the objections of their parents (who want them to study, play basketball, go to church) rings much truer to life, to me, than the usual hiphop coming-of-age mythology. Which is also, no doubt, true (as the Selector might say) but no longer has the ring of it. That, by the end of the play, they have not (yet) created their rap masterpiece, also rings true.
But wait. Maybe that was a spoiler. I’ll stop now. I liked everything about this play — the performances (Crystal Fox as the Selector in particular), the staging, and especially the writing. I expect Idris Goodwin will be one of those playwrights who wins Pulitzers one day. You should go see this.