Idris Goodwin

Spirit, body, voice: how we get on

Portland Playhouse hops back to the '80s with a rhythmic rap tale straight outta the burbs

By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE

It’s 1988, and, Yo! MTV raps! We’re in the flyover states, the middle of nowhere, with the disappearing rust and wheat belts making way for the biggest malls in America. With How We Got On, Portland Playhouse and playwright Idris Goodwin are taking us on a journey through history, hip-hop, and a coming-of-age for three young black kids on the verge of adulthood.

Ithica Tell: The Selector selects. Photo: Owen Carey

Ithica Tell: The Selector selects. Photo: Owen Carey

The big beautiful magnet of hustle and bustle known as the City is far off. But for most kids of that era it was the place they wanted to be, and they went there by any means necessary, through their minds, curiosity and imagination. Book stores were few and far between, but the dial tone of the radio and cable television was everywhere. The silver neat-edged boombox tuned in, shouted back, and with two cassette decks could play, record and repeat. Music wasn’t just on the radio, but on the television: artists made little movies, music videos, that put their voices and hip, hyped-up icons in every room of the house. The kids ate it up and wanted more. In a series of composed boxes outlined with a few thin trees and concrete, the mall was the place to plug in and buy the electric-looking images they saw on their home screens. Shoes, shirts, hats, attitude and style could be played out, recorded and repeated. Why all the work? Suburbia was an adult world. Kids wanted their own thing, their own identity, and they wanted something new that had their meaning. Rap and hip-hop were bleeding through the cultural cracks and making their way to the Midwest. Life would never be the same.

Our guide on this journey is the Selector, graciously played by Ithica Tell. She’s the statuesque fair wise feminine energy of history. She’ll let you in and have your say as you become part of history, part of the story, but the Selector will put you in your proper place. The Selector choses the soundtrack, the back track that informs the lyrics that Hank, Julian and Luann will play out. She paints the backgrounds of former chapters and shows the heavy shoulders that all creative work builds upon. In a softly lit sound booth, she stands between two turntables and a DJ mixer.

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On rap: how Mic Crenshaw gets on

From Scott-Heron to Kanye, the musical director of "How We Got On" talks about the history and politics of the music at the heart of the culture

By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE

In an age when collecting has trumped the library and become a mausoleum of consumer culture, Rap is one of the last cultural holdouts to maintain a sense of the individual as prominent in the artistic process. Its fluid appeal is easily translated, copied and replicated from continent to continent. It carries an element of sharing and community that is disappearing from the downloading culture of Pop music, and has never been prominent with Classical collectors. Rap is a chameleon: it has a sister, Hip-Hop culture, and can be translated into material objects, literature, entertainment, sensibilities, attitudes, politics, movies, dance and plays.

By nature, Rap is centered on Black identity, and while the popular critical battleground is to name the “haves” and “have-nots,” at one point or another a Rap artist must address the Black identity of the art. The “haves” are held under a magnifying glass for popularizing material excess without allegiance to community or explaining the Western European origins of the commodities they exploit lyrically. There is a conflict, since Rap is by definition the ultimate popular and most accessible musical expression of Deconstruction: a reassembling of portable culture whose birth came out of poverty and necessity, which still relies on the premise of parts that refer to physical, emotional, and intellectual history. While the wealthiest of authors can afford the resources to make each part themselves, they still follow the origins of the structure.

Mic Crenshaw: cultural historian in the groove.

Mic Crenshaw: cultural historian in the groove.

There is also an elegiac pattern among Black intellectuals. The beautiful fragments that compose what we call this culture, or in this case, a play, all come onto a common ground with Idris Goodwin, author of How We Got On, which opens Saturday night at Portland Playhouse and continues through October 25. How We Got On is a celebratory bildungsroman told through a Selector of three kids during the late 1980s Golden Age of Rap who lay down beats and rhymes, overcoming dysfunction and isolation through the music that shapes their lives.

The history of Rap is still under debate: was it born from the field holla, the preacher call, the long history of Black poets in America? Some say that it was born in the late 1970s. Others look at the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron in the late ’60s as the fathers of the genre. Heavily politicized by them, that message never left Rap: fundamentally, when we assume art is by definition communication, Rap is a dialogue.

I spoke with Mic Crenshaw, who is musical director of Portland Playhouse’s How We Got On, the day after he MCed the new documentary Who Is Gil Scott-Heron?, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, at the Clinton Street Theater. Scott-Heron was the voice of the Black Panther Party on vinyl: he gave us a new notion of how to look at the divisions of our cities and the marketing that invaded homes more prominently in the ’60s. His message remains clear and authentic, providing a legacy that still cuts a good groove. At the premiere of the documentary, Mic Crenshaw – community leader, artist, co-station manager of KBOO radio –presented a group of young poets who shared their lyrics on the state of society today. It was an ellipse of history in motion.

Crenshaw, born and raised in the Midwest, moved to Portland as a young adult. He’s taken on a lot of projects over the years, from poetry slams to recording to working closely with Education Without Borders, and is the Political Director of Hip Hop Congress, the Lead U.S. Organizer for the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan. He also works with Black Lives Matter.

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