Syncing Ink (Professional Theatre Review)
Originally published in Theatre is Easy.
By NSangou Njikam; Directed by Niegel Smith Produced by The Flea Theater
Off Off Broadway, Musical Runs through 10.29.17 The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street
Elisha Lawson, Kara Young, McKenzie Frye, NSangou Njikam, Nuri Hazzard,
Adesola Osakalumi and DJ Reborn in Syncing Ink. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: You will throw your hands in the air, and clap until you just don’t care!
A true MC (Master of Ceremonies) is the paramount goal for all aspiring hip hop artists, but how on earth does one become this supreme being? Are true MCs born with talent, or is it something that they can learn? In Syncing Ink the answer is a little bit of both. Evoking the Deities of Yoruba in the form of breakdancing grandmasters, a shy student named Gordon (NSangou Njikam) navigates his way through the perils of high school rap battles and the complexities of his HBC (Historic Black College) in hopes of tapping into his ancestors' skills and freeing the MC within. The production begins with an audience call and response, and indeed the audience is the eighth actor in this cast of six. The seventh character is the Mutha, the Creator in the form of a dazzling female DJ (DJ Reborn) perched high above the stage, never directly speaking but providing guidance in the form of music and beats.
Director Niegel Smith has expertly placed the audience in the round; as the circular stage comes alive, so too does the audience. Being able to see the reactions of people opposite electrifies the atmosphere, making the experience less of a play and more like a circle of fans, cheering and jeering at the explosions of beats and rhyme. “MMM!” “YAAAS!” “OHHH!” and “DAAAMN!”are just a few phrases which reverberate throughout the house, as the audience viscerally reacts time and time again to the eloquence of wit and rhetoric provided by playwright and leading actor NSangou Njikam. Like all great MCs before him, Njikam pays tribute to the giants whose shoulders he stands upon, evoking rhythm and flow from famous groups like Eric B. and Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, The Fugees and even The Sugarhill Gang. While fans of rap certainly will get the most out of this nod to the originators, audience members less familiar with hip hop history will not feel left out of the fun. If anything, Syncing Ink will produce new hip hop fans, eager to learn more.
Although the lyrical brilliance of NSangou Njikam is undeniable, the Yin is nothing without the Yang. Shaping Gordon’s journey are a group of renaissance artists who triple as actors, dancers, and freestyle rappers. Gravitating back and forth from various characters, each actor plays different incarnations of their Yoruban deity. Adesola Osakalumi embodies Baba, the Father, gravitating skillfully between a frail, yet dirty-minded dad to a black militant professor. McKenzie Frye oozes sensuality as the embodiment of Osun, the womb of creativity. Her entrance as Mona Lisa Peterson brings the play to a rare moment of silence, as both actors and audience are left slack jawed and rapt with admiration. Nuri Hazzard has an apt surname for the deity Ogun, the warrior and Gordon's natural adversary, who brings Gordon to his knees as a challenger and raises the bar for the necessary level of artistry. Accompanying him is the delightful trickster Esu, played by the sidesplittingly funny Elisha Lawson. Finally, accompanying Gordon on his journey is Sweet Tea, or Oya— a force of wind, played to perfection by the luminous Kara Young. Just like the wind changes from a breeze to a tornado, Young has a deft touch for masterfully adapting to each new incarnation with a passion and vulnerability that is palpable from every inch of the theatre.
Even more impressive than the written script is the fact that much is unscripted. The actors freestyle rap many significant parts, creating something new and different each night, pushing the boundaries of what musical theatre can be. It is through this combination of oral and written verse that Njikam honors both the African and the American styles of storytelling. Supporting the cast is an impressive creative team including choreographer and associate director Gabriel "Kwikstep" Dionisio. Kevin Rigdon's lighting design and Justin Ellington's sound design are particularly on point, which is no easy feat considering the various locations and multiple realities throughout the piece.
What NSangou Njikam has created runs far deeper than a hip hop musical—Njikam has created a masterpiece. The pen is his sword and this grandmaster has crafted a love letter to black America and hip hop, as well as a love letter to oral storytelling and the people of Yoruba. Although Syncing Ink only runs until the end of the month, there is no question that the future life of this production is bright indeed. If there is any justice in the world, it will be on Broadway very soon, and hopefully in the same electrifying audience arrangement (I’m looking at you, Circle in the Square Theatre). Watch out Lin-Manuel Miranda, there’s a new MC in town!
(Syncing Ink plays at The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, through October 29, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Mondays at 7; Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 7; Saturdays at 2 and 2; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $15 - $75 ($100 VIP); lowest-priced tickets are first-come, first-served. Tickets are available at theflea.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)
Syncing Ink is by NSangou Njikam. Directed by Niegel Smith. Choreographer and Associate Director is Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio. Scenic Design is by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume Designer is Claudia Brown. Lighting Designer is by Kevin Rigdon. Sound Design is by Justin Ellington. Dramaturgy by Sybil R. Williams. Associate Scenic Design is Taisa Malouf. Assistant Director is Kristan Seemel. Assistant Costume Design is Sarah Lawrence. Assistant Sound Design is John McKenna. Production Stage Manager is Michal V. Mendelson. Assistant Stage Manager is Violet A. Tafari. Wardrobe Crew is Stephanie Echevarria. Sound Board Operator is Tyshawn Major.
The cast is McKenzie Frye, Nuri Hazzard, Elisha Lawson, NSangou Nijkam, Adesola A. Osakalumi, DJ Reborn, and Kara Young.