'Syncing Ink': A High Energy Homage to Hip Hop at The Flea

From left: Adesola Osakalumi, NSangou Njilkam and Nuri Hazzard. Photo: Joan Marcus 

Oct. 20, 2017

A heavy bass beat throbs through The Flea before the house opens for Syncing Ink. It’s a taste of what’s to come in this high energy, homage to hiphop that brings a “funky freshness” to the theatre’s new digs. I stole that line from the pre-show announcements, telling the audience to silence phones and not to take photos, but the audience was also funkier than your average theater crowd and refreshingly did not hold back in commentary and good-humored heckling of the cast’s rapping ability.

While this show is about a musical genre, it is as much about the words as the music. The verbal pyrotechnics are at moments stunning as are the exceptional cast’s indefatigable and gravity defying gyrations.

NSangou Njikam plays himself in this semi-autobiographical play. It follows nerdy Gordon’s (Njikam) quest to become a hiphop MC despite the apparent insurmountable hurdles that he can’t rhyme and he’s not cool. Whether you know all of Aesop Rock’s lyrics by heart or you can remember all of Puff Daddy’s names, you will learn so much more about hiphop from this play.

The Flea’s Sam theatre (its largest space) is transformed into a cool club with a DJ (DJ Reborn), identified as Oludmare, the supreme creator, spinning on a platform high above the stage. All the action is framed by somewhat muddled references to Yoruba heritage that are not fully explained and ultimately don’t make a huge difference to the main thrust of the drama. Played in the round, the stage is a vinyl record that variously becomes a classroom, a club and a university as Gordon strives to perfect the attributes of a rapper.  

Lesson One: It helps if you know something about poetry. The first act unfolds in a high school classroom where a charismatic teacher, Baba, drops pearls of wisdom, quoting poetry before his hyper-articulate class. “You must activate and integrate your inner linguistic capacity for you are all born with allocations from your Ancestors…,” he intones.

Adesola Osakalumi is excellent as he sets the students their first assignment—writing haiku (sets of 5,7 and 5 syllables). Jamal, played by a superb Nuri Hazzard, is quick to display his prowess in rhyming and a whole scene is rattled off in haiku. But Jamal has rivals in the class, including his former girlfriend Sweet Tea, the diminutive Kara Young who brings an inimitable intensity to her performance.

The very funny Elisha Lawson as Ice Cold completes the class. That is until a new girl arrives, Mona Lisa, played with glorious, sinuous sensuality and mobile eyebrows by McKenzie Frye. She sets the boys a quiver and Gordon finds he is tongue-tied when it is his turn to make a rhyme.

Lessons Two and Three: Learn to make scary faces and crazy shapes with your hands. Gordon manages, with the help of his friends, to perfect the face and hands with hilarious consequences but the rhyming continues to thwart him. From time to time, the scripted dialogue breaks into virtuoso free-styling rap done on the fly and peppered with contemporary references to Gordon Hayward’s broken leg, Jeff Sessions and other headlines.

Gordon goes off to a renowned black university still unable to perform “The Cat in the Hat on crack” as his mother dubs rap. Here, we meet two opposing schools of black identity. Professor Black who refuses to even use white paper and Professor Brown, with his ascot, faux English accent and reverence for Shakespeare played impeccably by Osakalumi and Hazzard respectively. This is where the play reaches its comic heights and the dancing becomes nothing short of acrobatic.

The coming of age tale has a predictable outcome—a happy one. And happy is how you feel when the lights go up. The play avoids addressing racial strife and much of the rapping is a good deal more PC than many recent releases. Fundamentally, this is a celebration of the heights of eloquence that hip hop has contributed to contemporary American culture, and we are the richer for it.

Syncing Ink" is written by NSangou Njikam and directed by Niegel Smith. It plays through Nov. 5. Shows are on Monday, and Wednesday to Saturday at 7 p.m. at The Flea, 20 Thomas St. For tickets, click here.

The cast: McKenzie Frye, Nuri Hazzard, Elisha Lawson , NSangou Njikam, Adesola A. Osakalumi, DJ Reborn and Kara Young.