Entertainment » Theatre

'Hype Man' :: Shawn LaCount on Company One Theatre's Upcoming 19th Season

by Kilian Melloy
Sunday Dec 31, 2017

For eighteen seasons Company One has offered Boston audiences the kind of relevant, compelling theater that makes the art form both exciting and meaningful -- if, sometimes, emotionally challenging. (If you've seen the unflinching "Dry Land," produced in 2015, or the lacerating "An Octoroon," produced in 2016, you know what I mean.)

But that doesn't mean Company One is interested only in feeding you your spinach. Relevant theater can also be a whole lot of fun. Witness productions like last season's "Peerless," or 2014's "Astro Boy and the God of Comics," or the still-talked-about triumphs of shows like "Hookman" and "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" (both produced by Company One in 2012).

All of which is to say a new season from Company One never fails to elicit keen anticipation, and their upcoming 19th season, which offers three plays from the African American male perspective, feels especially relevant and timely.

EDGE had the pleasure of chatting with Artistic Director Shawn LaCount about the new season's slate of plays and the ways in which art can speak to these perilous times for our country and culture.

EDGE: I'm so excited about Company One's new season because it takes such a provocative and, at this moment in time, such an important theme: The black male experience in America. What is behind the choice of this theme?

Shawn LaCount: It's funny... our party line is that we pick the best plays of the moment relative to our mission. We don't look to program toward a theme, necessarily, at the start of our process. But, that said, we often have had seasons that fall into a really specific theme, and that relates to our choices of playwrights. So we've had seasons that are all female playwrights at a moment when we felt that those voices needed to be amplified. And then this season... you know, a big part of what we do is look at ways we can help highlight marginalized identities and marginalized voices in American theater in ways we think can be beneficial for our community here in Boston and, in our little way, the industry nationally. We've found that this season is comprised of three plays all by black American playwrights. They are exceptional plays that are wildly different from one another, but all really get in and help to give voice to a population of people that are in need of it right now.

EDGE: Very much so, yes. Even here in Boston we've recently seen rallies and counter rallies that underscore the political tensions of this moment in time. The resounding rejection of Boston of so-called 'white nationalists' is heartening, but it's disheartening, in another way, that we even find ourselves having this conversation.

Shawn LaCount: I think that's exactly right. We're a non-profit, of course, and I feel like once our mission was achieved we could go away.


And I think that, similarly, these are conversations we shouldn't have to be having right now. They are conversations about humanity, they are conversations about unity and equity -- we should be beyond that, and we're not. We want to make sure we are diving deeply into the complexities of some of these stories, highlighting some of these people at this moment.

EDGE: Let's talk a little about your first play for Company One's new season, "Hype Man."

Shawn LaCount: The official title is 'Hype Man: A Break Beat Play.'

EDGE: 'Break Beat'... Is that a kind of music?

Shawn LaCount: So, basically, yeah -- I don't know if you saw our piece "How We Got On," a few years back, where there was a lot of hip hop. It was about the genesis of hip-hop in the early '80s in middle America, suburban America. It was all about the young kids learning to rhyme and how hip-hop culture impacted them. It's the same playwright. He has a series of break beat plays -- they're really plays that are infused with hip-hop and rap, and beats, and the kind of culture that surrounds those things. "Hype Man" is a play with music and about music.

EDGE: "How We Got On" is also by Idris Goodwin, so obviously having done that earlier play he was on your radar. But what brought "Hype Man: A Break Beat Play," specifically, to your programming for this season?

Shawn LaCount: Our experience with Idris and his play "How We Got On" was extremely positive and the audiences loved it. He's writing these great plays that are also theatrical and musical events -- they aren't exactly musicals because the music is part of the content in terms of how these characters are making music as part of the plot line, [rather than] breaking into song as a musical would.

The structure of his work is really interesting, and no one else is doing it like this. He's using the world of hip-hop to explore a lot of the subjects that we were just talking about, that are relevant today. The piece is timely in that it has conversations inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and it has major themes of allyship. It also deals with sexism and female empowerment within the hip-hop world. It deals with loyalty and friendship and made family.

The story is three people who make up a music group - a rap group. The MC, the lead rapper, is a white man and the hype man of the group, which is basically... I don't know how familiar you are with hip-hop, but the hype man is often the guy who gets the crowd going, [he does] supporting vocals, the echoing of certain lyrics, the repetitive pieces underneath the song. That's what a hype man does.

The hype man is a black man in this piece. And then there's a female DJ who is of mixed race. The three of them make up the band, and in the world of the play, the group has been gaining popularity. The play opens with the group rehearsing for their first big break -- being featured on the 'Tonight Show.' As they're rehearsing for the gig there's a shooting [by a police officer] of an unarmed 17 year old black teen kid in the community where they are living and making music, and it becomes a deep conversation around what is their individual and collective responsibility to speak out and make a statement on the 'Tonight Show,' since they now have a platform.

Very specifically, what is this white rapper, who is really the face of the group, what is his responsibility? They become divided over this, where the white rapper is saying, 'We've never been political, it's not our brand, it's not what we do,' where his partners are saying, 'Sure, that's easy for you to say -- we have no choice but for it to be our brand, because here we are, we deal with it every day, and it would be negligent not to speak up about it.' The police officer in the shooting gets off and doesn't see any kind of consequence for the shooting. It's very similar to the kind of news we see all too regularly right now.

It's a piece about allyship and responsibility to equity and humanity. There was a moment that inspired the piece after the Trayvon Martin shooting. During that year's BET Awards someone said, 'I haven't seen too many white rappers step up to say anything' -- implying that it's easy to come in and out of this political world when you're not implicated by the color of your skin. It's a great piece -- it's going to be a world premiere. We've been developing it. Idris is doing work all over the country. We did a workshop in October where we brought in a local rapper and created the piece and the songs, and then we had another workshop in November, and the play opens in January.

EDGE: So this really is a major creative exercise insofar as you also need to create the music to go with the play's text. The music doesn't come pre-loaded.

Shawn LaCount: Correct. Idris writes the lyrics. He's a poet and a rapper and a playwright. We specifically brought in a rapper -- he's not really an actor, but a rapper, to work with those lyrics. He also read the play with us and did some work on the play, too. But we had a sound engineer and a beat maker -- I guess the equivalent of a music director, but this artist makes hip-hop beats. It has been a lot of fun. We worked out these raps and then we also, dramaturgically, worked on the piece. We've really made sure that the piece is doing what it needs to do at this moment in time.

EDGE: You're directing 'Hype Man.' What else is coming up after this? Will you be directing the season's other works, or appearing in other capacities?

Shawn LaCount: Summer [L. Williams] will be directing 'Wig Out!' at the A.R.T. That's Tarell Alvin McCraney's piece. Tarrell wrote the story for the movie "Moonlight." That's a co-production with the Oberon Presents series. We worked with Tarell on the "Brother/Sister Plays" years ago. He's really an incredible, incredible playwright and, of course, "Moonlight" was an enormous success in the cinema. We're so excited to be working with him again on a new draft of that play. It's a play about drag culture and drag houses and family -- found family and native family. It's a hilarious, sharp, and really beautiful play. There's a ton of music in it; it's about drag culture so a lot of it is lip-sync, but there are also three women who act as kind of a chorus. We're actively working with different communities in Boston to find folks who do drag in a big way. That is in April.

EDGE: And what will the third show be in the new season?

Shawn LaCount: Summer will be directing for the first-ever production of "Leftovers," by Josh Wilder. Josh is currently an MFA play writing student at Yale. We've been developing "Leftovers" over the last two years. We're going to be doing that at the Strand Theater. It's a timely play about two brothers. Their father is in and out of the picture, and their mother is trying to do the best she can with them. On the third page of the play a dandelion breaks through the sidewalk in front of their house and grows "Jack and the Beanstalk"-style, up to the heavens. It has the power to grant wishes.

It's a play that's set heavily in realism, but with this strange magical component to it. The play looks at black masculinity and male role models. Cliff Huxtable from "The Cosby Show" is also a character in this play. The play actually, specifically looks at who the role models are historically for the black men in the community, and what does it mean when somebody like the real-life Bill Cosby is caught up in the allegations that he is now. How people are divided in many cases around what he's been accused of, and how awful that is and how important the Huxtables were to a lot of people's hopes and dreams. It wrestles with all of that.

EDGE: Wow... timely in so many ways!

Shawn LaCount: Yeah.. [Laughter] We don't really get into... again, the character is Cliff Huxtable, it's not Bill Cosby, so the play definitely has a full awareness of its timeliness in thinking about role models and role models for black men in certain communities, and then of course the family structure and the role models for the family structure - and the strong women. It's a wonderful play and it's changed so much, because when Josh started writing it Cosby hadn't been accused in the same way [he has been since]. He's incorporating some of that into the work.

EDGE: This is an interesting time for the intersection of race and theater. There's growing representation but also, in a way, it feels like there's more that can very easily go wrong -- sensitivities that we try to be aware of, and yet it's like we're still so new at being aware of those sensitivities, along with a knowledge, in some ways, of our own lack of understanding. Like that fracas around "The Great Comet" that happened and ended up shutting that play down. We're still learning how to think about those things and how to put them together.

Shawn LaCount: I think there's a mistake that's often made that, in the same way things can be good and bad, there's some sort of okay and not-okay conversation around things like race and representation. I hope one of the reasons why things are so prickly is because we're realizing it's complicated, and it's rich, and it's got roots in history; it's systematic, and it's not as simple as making it one choice and clearing years of painful history. A multi-faceted approach is going to be a more complicated approach and eventually it's going to be a richer approach, and it's something we at Company One are always thinking about.

Inevitably, a company our size -- and really, any company -- for every time we do a focused set of work like this, we're leaving something else out. Ideally, we'll grow to a place where we're able to offer many more programs and our [work toward] representation will have a much wider and broader impact. But right now, I have to tell you, it's very lucky for us in many ways that we are small and have flexibility relative to other companies. I'm able to look and see what's being mapped across Boston stages and across the country. In political and socially dangerous moments like these, it bothers me and worries me when I see companies programming in a conservative, traditional way and then trying to have conversations about why those older plays may or may not speak to the moment. It makes me feel that as a field we are not doing our part for progress.

EDGE: It's a difficult thing to keep a theater company gong, even in a theater-friendly town like Boston, and you're been going strong for nineteen years -- so, Shawn, congratulations on that accomplishment.

Shawn LaCount: Thank you very much, I appreciate that.

"Hype Man: A Break Beat Play" runs Jan. 26 - Feb. 24 at the Boston Center for the Arts. for tickets and more information about the play and the remainder of the CompanyOne season, please go to http://companyone.org/current-season

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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