Last year, an unknown playwright debuted his semi-autobiographical play at the Alley Theatre’s “Alley All-New Festival.” At intermission of the very first free performance, Alley Artistic Director Greg Boyd decided he wanted to produce the world premiere. A year later, this groundbreaking show is part of the Alley’s regular season and might just be the best show produced there so far this year.
The Alley is known for an outstanding resident company and a track record for excellent productions — they rarely miss the mark. When I saw “Syncing Ink” on the season schedule when I renewed, I figured it was being produced at least partially because of the success of “Hamilton” and the desire to offer more hip-hop inspired shows. But to compare “Syncing Ink” to “Hamilton” is unfair to both shows. Yes, they both feature their writer in a prominent role and yes, they both feature hip-hop music. But that’s where the comparisons end.
The story is played out in two acts – the first featuring the characters in high school while the second finds them in college. The show features only six actors and a DJ, but the story cleverly uses all of the actors except the star in multiple, contrasting roles. Playwright Nsangou Njikam is George, an intelligent young man desperate to learn how to “freestyle” but failing miserably. Friends in his class include Mona Lisa (McKenzie Frye), the “hot” girl in school, Jamal (Nuri Hazzard), the best freestyle rapper at the school (and perhaps anywhere), his best friend and sidekick Ice Cold (Elisha Lawson) and small but powerful Sweet Tea (Kara Young) who may have a secret crush on George. Adesola A. Osakalumi plays multiple roles, including high school teacher Mr. Wright, Gordon’s dad, and in act two, a hilarious activist teacher named Professor Black.
This is not a musical, but rather a play that features musical interludes and “beats” for the various freestyle parts of the show. As George tries to develop his skills or when Jamal shows his lyrical prowess, the DJ, nicknamed “The Mutha” (DJ Reborn) spins the tunes or provides the “beats” for the characters. She also interjects sound effects and some “background” music as needed. The script is clever, funny, heartbreaking and features some wonderful scripted raps early on, but it is always real. The intimacy of the Alley’s Neuhaus Stage serves the piece well, putting us right there with the actors on their journey and using the “theatre in the round” as an arena for the climactic freestyle battle.
There are some beautiful moments in the play, including the pieces between George and his father, a man always there at the right time to offer sage advice while hiding his own malady from his son. The singing, acting and dancing is first-class from the entire cast, but the final 20 minutes alone are worth the price of a ticket.
The show’s climax is a freestyle battle with the audience as the judges and both actors going into the scene not knowing the beats/song that will be used and having no script whatsoever. Each performance is unique and quite literally anything can happen. Both actors are more than up to the task, with references to all the current political figures (Trump, Clinton, Sanders and more) and even a shout-out to very recently deceased Al Jarreau at the performance I attended.
This is the world premiere of this piece and I can’t imagine that much more will be done to change it. This is a magical night at the theatre and in a world of remakes and reboots, an original and engaging story. At the talkback after my performance, it was said that the next performance would be off-Broadway in New York this fall. I sincerely hope this show finds an audience and continues to tell this uplifting and inspiring story.
****1/2 out of *****
By Nsangou Njikam
Directed by Niegel Smith
Now through March 5th
Photo: Nuri Hazzard as Jamal, Elisha Lawson as Ice Cold, Kara Young as Sweet Tea and DJ Reborn as The Mutha in “Syncing Ink” at the Alley Theatre