While Hip Hop and Theater might seem like an odd combo at first glance, the two disciplines coexist perfectly in the hands of veteran DC performers Hueman Prophets. The Prophets’ latest work Read: White and Blue uses sharp beats, introspective lyrics, and winning chemistry to diagram the tribulations of inner city life, particularly for the black community, as well as the struggle to comprehend these challenges from outside the urban bubble.
As the play unfolds, performers “AuraGin” (Jabari Exum), and “StraightForward” (Baye Harrell) spin a tale of struggle and societal division informed by their own distinct life paths. According to their web biography, after striking up a friendship at age 4, Harrell eventually left DC to pursue formalized higher education, while Exum remaining to hone his craft on the streets of the District. Both men bring different viewpoints on the contemporary black experience, contributing nuanced portraits of hustlers just trying to get by and professional types struggling to reconcile their urban upbringing with their suburban/middle class lifestyles.
The first act introduces Hueman Poets’ unique brand of storytelling, which blends spontaneous outbursts of rapping and beat boxing with spoken word and recorded audio. The act rejects a cohesive storyline, progressing instead through a random assortment of clever, dark, and even whimsical rhymes and meditations. Exum and Harrell lament the dangerous allure of drug addiction, extol the value of being a good father, and explore the nagging insecurities of a self-made man.
In the duo’s captivating performance of standout piece “I Ain’t Going Nowhere,” they strip down stereotypes of urban violence through a staged standoff between a presumed robber and a defensive father. The Prophets effectively humanize both sides of the conflict as they give each figure the chance to plead his case. Pride, fear, and primal protective instincts mingle freely in a crackling lyrical exchange.
The playful “intermission” bleeds into the second act, where the real meat of the play lies. Harrell, playing a struggling middle class author, stares across the small expanse of the stage at Exum, who stares right back as a street hustler building a business of his own. The two actors take turns imagining and re-imagining the other in an absorbing tableau of presumed identities and shifting expectations.
It’s a tribute to the Prophets’ writing prowess and flexible acting styles that they can convincingly pull off vastly different potential scenarios back to back, without any scene or costume changes.
The Prophets utilize their differing life experience to build their diverse slate of characters. Exum largely stays close to the street, playing a succession of stret types – drug dealer, enterprising t-shirt vendor, and presumptive gang member types, while Harrell sticks to white collar personas.
Hueman Prophets’ Read: White and Blue
Closes Sept 23, 2012
Mead Theatre Lab at
916 G St NW
1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $12 – $15
Thursdays thru Sundays
Likewise, whether organically or by choice, Exum exhibits a galloping rap style that bursts from his mouth with ideas and emotion and at times dominates even the heaviest of backing tracks. Meanwhile, Harrell utilizes a smoother, more introspective flow that winds gracefully around the beat. At various points, they play against type with ease, showing they could mix things up if they chose.
The simple design of the apartment setting and the straightforward lighting plan give the duo a fairly blank slate. A succession of identity-revealing T-shirts allows AuraGin and StraightForward to rotate through characters quickly without leaving the stage. As for audio, the show really cooks when blanketed by DJ “RBI” Ron Brown’s beats and Harrell’s clever sound design. Brown’s backing tracks quality production across a range of styles. Intermittent recorded voiceovers provide fourth wall-breaking laughs and sly commentary on hip hop stereotypes and audience assumptions.
The Hueman Prophets pride themselves on creating dynamic, socially conscious art, and Read: White and Blue doesn’t disappoint. The story and production details, guided by the canny hand of Director Psalmayene 24, form a multi-faceted social critique that tries to cover a lot of ground, with fairly consistent success.
To be honest, however, it would still be worth the price of admission with a bare stage, no sound system, and the Prophets rapping the nutrition facts off a box of corn flakes. These guys are the real deal.
Hueman Prophets’ Read: White and Blue, By Jabari Exum and Baye Harrell, Directed by Psalmayene 24
Produced by CulturalDC, Reviewed by Ben Demers