ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Last year at this time Duke City Repertory Theatre produced a very interesting play called “Hype Man” by Idris Goodwin, a rap artist, poet and playwright.
The drama was the final piece of a trilogy of “break beat plays,” a pulsating conflation of hip hop and theater.
Now Goodwin has teamed up with Kevin Coval for another fascinating play that, like “Hype Man,” explores the conflicted relationship between genuine artistic expression and the alluring world of commercial success. Like the previous play, the focus is on an art form that often attracts the young and the less privileged – graffiti – while also hovering on the margin of “legitimate” artistic expression.
Naturally class is also a theme of the play, given resonance in the romantic relationship between a lower-class black man of extraordinary intelligence and talent, and his middle-class white girlfriend, whose greatest asset is not artistic talent but her car, although three years of drama camp has given her a talent for improvising her way out of trouble.
“This Is Modern Art” is a more mature work of dramatic art than “Hype Man,” and in Duke City’s scintillatingly performed and exquisitely designed production, it’s a show you don’t want to miss.
Based on an actual event, “This Is Modern Art” dramatizes a trio of graffiti artists who blazon a work of graffiti art on the very expensive new modern art wing of the Chicago Art Institute. The leader of the group, Seven, is frustrated with being on the outside of the legitimate art world, seeing his creations blasted away so fast nobody even gets to see them. He wants his work to find acceptance and permanence. He is told that graffiti is not about permanence, but is an anonymous act of performative rebellion.
The play works as a drama of ideas exploring this contradiction, but is also an extremely entertaining “crime drama,” steadily mounting in tension until its climax as the four youths graffiti bomb the Art Institute and then attempt to evade the iron hand of the law.
Like “Hype Man” the drama is written in a sort of vernacular street poetry, and requires skilled actors. Director Ezra Colón’s talented cast not only effectively delivers the intoxicating street poetry, but also the idiosyncratic body language of this engaging subculture.
The scenes flow into one another gracefully and require no set changes. Frank Taylor Green, Alicia Lueras Maldonado, and Dachary Vann play the three graffiti artists with complete authenticity, while Addison Flores-Thorpe is wonderful as Seven’s white middle-class girlfriend. Danielle Robertson and Jacob Swanson are excellent in multiple roles.
“This Is Modern Art” is brilliantly designed by Chesapeake Dalrymple, Lucas Zúñiga, and Scott Milder. The viaduct that crosses upstage is a precise facsimile of a Chicago viaduct. The rear is also crossed with a transparent scrim, with subtle but authentic looking graffiti art covering its length. Behind the scrim, covering the entire back wall, is the famous Chicago skyline. While the actors never actually spray paint, but rather simulate the action, the lighting design miraculously produces graffiti that hangs in the air for the audience to see. This is a stellar production on all levels.
“This Is Modern Art” plays through March 8 at Tricklock, 110 Gold SW. Go to dukecityrep.com or call 797-7081 for reservations.