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Hip-hop/theater artists Idris Goodwin and Maria Isa keep it REALNESS with new play

Maria Isa. Photos by Heidi Boehnenkamp, courtesy the Playwrights' Center.

Idris Goodwin and Maria Isa are both used to playing many roles. They both transition constantly among theaters, recording studios, and the classrooms where they teach. They both have busy travel schedules, crossing the country to pursue projects in multiple media—and they both found themselves at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis on Monday night, celebrating a reading of Goodwin’s new play in which Isa took the lead.

The REALNESS: the second break beat play follows T.O., a young man from the suburbs who moves to the city for college and to embed himself in hip-hop culture. He meets Prima (Isa), a talented MC who lets him into her life, which is as dreamy in the music club as it is difficult in her neighborhood. As T.O. falls in love with Prima, he finds himself lying and scheming—anything to stay in the world where Prima and real, authentic hip-hop live. He starts to question his love for both, unsure whether he’s really in love with them and all their bitter realities or just chasing a music dream.

After the first of two nights of readings, the artists talked about what inspires them to tell stories about the real people behind hip-hop.

Goodwin said he started writing the break beat plays (the REALNESS is second in a series that he’ll always be writing, he said) because he is interested in exploring hip-hop’s impact on America over the last 40 years.

“I think that there’s a space for stories that are about all of the nuances, all of the depth, all of the history and contradiction and complexity of those who call themselves hip-hop [artists]—not only those who practice it, create it, innovate it, but those who are fans of it,” Goodwin said. “Hip-hop is such a central part of who I am as a person, and I know so many people of that world who work in every aspect of it, and so I just want to try to tell some of those stories.”

He is also interested in writing “drama with a capital D,” he said, and writing plays that truly have the essence of the music. “It has amazing and dynamic performance opportunities within it that can be drawn out and put onto the stage in interesting ways,” he said.

The REALNESS takes place in 1996, at a time when hip-hop, like the character T.O., was questioning its role in the world and moving between classes. The show mixes music and drama the whole way through, from the plot to the characters to the innermost themes.

“It’s not like this is just a play that has some rapping in it. It feels like it’s of hip-hop,” Goodwin said. “You need to put rhymers in this play in order for it to really work. It’s also a way to celebrate and give actors who are from this world and have that skill set an opportunity to flex their muscles on a different milieu.”

Each member of the four-person cast brought their artistic backgrounds into their characters. Josh Wilder, an actor and a playwright, played the aspiring journalist and hip-hop dreamer T.O. Ensemble actor Aimee K. Bryant, who recently led the cast of Park Square Theatre’s The Color Purple, is a singer-songwriter. Ricardo Vazquez, a local actor and writer, also played ensemble roles, including a rapper who stuttered in conversation but rhymed effortlessly onstage.

And then, of course, there’s Isa. The St. Paul-raised singer, MC, actor, music producer and activist has been dividing most her time between the Twin Cities and Los Angeles. She released her album Valley of the Dolls in September and made her acting debut in the indie film Strike One, which premiered in February at the first ever Viva Latino Film Festival in New York.

Strike One was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival, so Isa’s off to France in May—but not before another play reading and a few shows in St. Paul, where she will be performing with her Villa Rosa partner, Muja Messiah. She’s also working on a mixtape called The Dragon Lady that will focus on showcasing female artists.

Isa said the The REALNESS brought her back to her hometown in more ways than one.

“It hits home. It really does. I first really started writing my rhymes in that ‘90s era as a child,” Isa said, “seeing our culture, which is home, being pushed and being accepted into media.”

She remembers following the stories of artists like Lauryn Hill and her group the Fugees, who once battled for a chance on the mic but then rose to fame and spread their music around the world. They let her know she could do this too, Isa said.

“The REALNESS is just keeping it real,” she said, whether you base it in New York, Chicago, St. Paul or Puerto Rico. Hip-hop is international, and the play captures that.

“It captures the block. It captures the cypher, it captures the want and the hunger of hip-hop before this commercialism and before the money and the flashy cars. It captures the spirit of just wanting to express your story and the stories of others that may not have that voice,” she said.

Goodwin is taking the stage to tell those stories now more than ever. Having spent two years writing intensively, he is now working on five plays in five weeks. He was in Philadelphia last weekend developing his play Sanctity with InterAct Theatre Company. After the Minneapolis workshop, he will go to Chicago to see a play he co-wrote with poet and educator Kevin Coval called “This is Modern Art” at Steppenwolf for Young Adults. His plays will also take him to San Francisco and New York in the coming weeks.

He has still found time to work on his rap, releasing his album Rhyming While Black in January.

“I’m doing a very hip-hop thing right now, which is just dropping mad mixtapes and mad freestyles. It’s a fertile time and I just want to say everything that I’ve been trying to say in this moment where I actually have the stages and the venues to do it,” he said. And despite having so many projects out there, he’s “just getting warm.”

“These break beat plays are the thing I want to leave behind,” Goodwin said. “It’s my way of contributing to this great culture, this really rich and deep, wonderful aesthetic that continues to enrich the lives of so many people and bring so many people together. And, I truly believe, the things that can fix a lot of America’s isms and issues.”

Isa said Prima’s and T.O.’s love story tells a much bigger story. “You got that Romeo and Juliet type of vibe, but you also have the essence of Dre beats and the essence of Dilla and the creation of where hip-hop is now and how we can grab it to continue to institutionalize it for our own textbooks,” she said.

“Children can see,” Isa continued, “‘Hey, Idris wrote this, I can write this. Idris is a professor, Maria Isa’s an actor, a rapper, a singer, a teacher.’ It gives a reflection to that crowd that is majority Anglo to say, ‘hey, this isn’t just cool now, this is what has survived through the pressures and the barriers of racism and poverty.’”

A second reading of The REALNESS: the second break beat play is tonight, March 3 at 7 p.m. at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. The readings are free, but tickets are required; reservations can be made here.

Hailey Colwell is a journalism major at the University of Minnesota and a co-director of Theatre Corrobora.