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.