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Tuesday, 30 April 2013 08:44

'Smash/Hit’ or near miss?

Written by Tina Farmer
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The Details

l-r Ronald L. Conner, Matthew Galbreath (Chance)
l-r Ronald L. Conner, Matthew Galbreath (Chance) / Stewart Goldstein

The Black Rep's world premier of Steve Broadnax and Michael Bordner's "Smash/Hit" is neither an off-the-chart success nor a box office flop, but it has the chance to develop into a solid hit. Building on the tradition of popular music as cultural touchstone, the show weaves original songs throughout its narrative. The varying lyrical quality and roughly mixed beats reveal not only a drive to share our stories with others, but an attempt to gain understanding, affect behavior and change lives through music.

What makes the play work so well is the combination of the actors' performances and the well-written, tightly connected script. The language used and situations presented speak directly to a contemporary audience: unplanned pregnancy, a lack of training or guidance during youth, military service as the career of last resort, sexual orientation and the related community stigma. These are issues we, as a community, struggle with every day.

However, as contemporary as this setting is -- and you don't get more contemporary than the battlefields of Afghanistan or urban rap radio -- the themes in "Smash/Hit" have a timeless quality. Does a performer pander to the broadest audience or fight to create music that touches on some truth, even when that truth is unpleasant? Does an artist give up or postpone artistic expression to support his family, or can he find a balance? Can a soldier ever fully recover from the atrocities of battle? Can a gay man reveal himself without fear in a culture dominated by misogyny and homophobia?

Money and Chance, the two young men at the center of the play, are simply trying to find their way, to discover who they are and where they fit in the world. Ronald L. Conner, as Money, and Matthew Galbreath, as Chance, fully commit to these roles, delivering strong, effective performances that reveal complexity as well as change.

Money's episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder offer a glimpse into the mind of the returning soldier; the randomness of his triggers and the confusion of those around him are hauntingly contrasted by Conner's deadeye stare, by his reflexive defensive actions.

Chance's confusion about his sexuality is heightened by the verbal taunting of his best friend, and his fears are reinforced by the outward rejection of the mainstream rap community. The supporting cast beautifully mirrors the central characters' dilemmas.

As Money's girlfriend, Joi, Felice Skye is not simply unwed and pregnant. She is sympathetic, vulnerable and self-determined. Justin Ivan Brown's Good Boy smoothly transitions between his hetero public persona and gay personal relationship -- but as his feelings for Chance deepen so does his reluctance to keep their relationship closeted. The conflicts between these four characters are relevant and powerful, resonating with a truth for this reviewer and touching on experiences that are familiar to most audiences.

The play is not without its misses, however. While DJ Super Nova did a nice job handling the music and playing the DJ/technician in the show, his character needs better definition. The few lines and direct interaction he has with the other characters may not be necessary, and the character lacked form.

The minimalistic set design was thoughtful and served the show; although the more permanent locations, particularly Money's house, would have benefitted from additional set dressing. The scaffolding at center stage, with the studio/radio station perched above, was an effective choice. Unfortunately, the time required to hang and remove signs during set changes impacted the flow of the performance, and many of the scene changes were simply too long.

On stage through May 18 at the Grandel Theater, "Smash/Hit" is a thoughtful and provocative play, but one that uses a light touch. Humor is sprinkled throughout the dialogue, and effectively used to express the truths revealed. The most surprising nuance of the show, however, is the sense of hope and humanity that shines through in the truths of these characters. I enjoyed the characters and story, and, although the show felt a bit rushed into performance, the performances lingered with me long after the songs faded. To reserve your tickets, or for more information, call The Black Rep Box Office at 314-534-3810.

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