The Flea, an estimable downtown theater company with an irritating name, prides itself on having conjured “joyful hell in a small space” for the past 20 years. Now starting its third decade, the organization has moved to a handsomely renovated building it owns on nearby Thomas Street. The official inaugural presentation in its new home is Syncing Ink by NSangou Njikam.
Subtitled “An African Ritual of Hip Hop Theatre,” Syncing Ink is supposedly inspired by the spiritual tradition and mythology of the Yoruba, an ancient people whose modern descendants can be found in western Nigeria. Despite this background, the production’s six high-energy actors and seasoned DJ steer clear of anything worshipful or meditative. This is a musical comedy, filled with cartoonish whimsy and solidly in the Flea’s tradition of joyous theatrical hell-raising. As one might expect, the focus is rhythm and rhyme—especially slant rhymes.
Protagonist Gordon Morris (author Njikam) is a senior at Langston Hughes High, a tony suburban institution where poets such as Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, and Hughes himself are revered by both faculty and students. Gordon wants “to learn the art of what it takes to rhyme.” He’s a hip-hop Candide, engaged in a picaresque search for identity and his authentic voice. Though comic, with touches of social satire, Syncing Ink is a touching depiction of a sensitive adolescent’s efforts to “reach down to the recesses of [his] recesses” for self-understanding and artistic expression.
To vie for a niche among hip-hop nobility at Langston Hughes High and become “a master of the ceremony,” Gordon must “battle any rapper who would try and test me.” That means proving his talent at a lunchtime “cypher,” or freestyle rap contest, in which “written rhymes [are] not allowed.” Gordon’s narration of this section calls to mind the Homeric bards of ancient Greece: “You [have] to come with it,” he tells us, “be in the moment because the moment [is] your Muse.”
At the cypher, Gordon faces consummate rhymer Jamal Roberts (Nuri Hazzard), one of his classmates in Advanced Placement English. Jamal is already an emcee and has no intention of ceding ground to newcomers.
“I’m the Hip Hop President,” declares Jamal in a comic aria, equal parts erudition and teen-aged street cred, that lets us know there’s a long odyssey ahead for the ambitious but naive Gordon. “I take precedence,” raps Jamal, “others be irrelevant / ... I be ripping up commas, they sweat my syllables … try to battle me but your rhymes sound retarded / now you’re broken hearted / don’t mess with me.”
In the second half of Syncing Ink, Gordon, Jamal, and high school friends IceCold (Elisha Lawson), Mona Lisa (McKenzie Frye), and Sweet Tea (Kara Young) are a year older. At Mecca University, a distinguished historically black institution, the freshmen are soaking up ideas from traditionalist Professor Brown (Hazzard) and iconoclastic Professor Black (Adesola Osakalumi). “Two black intellects, like W.E.B. Du Bois versus Huey P. Newton, battling over the proper way to approach the Black Word,” raps Gordon.
Gordon discovers that competition for the collegiate hip-hop crown is even more ferocious than in high school. To get to the Act II showdown, he has to learn about his African literary heritage—the historic “line” of freestyling “tongues who take the ink and make it sync,” and he must commune with the spirits of his forebears through some ceremonial balderdash staged with admirable (and flashy) assistance from lighting designer Kevin Rigdon.
At more than 2½ hours, Syncing Ink comes close to being an overdose of hip-hop high jinks, but it managed to sustain interest even at moments that would benefit from judicious cutting. Principal credit for that goes to Niegel Smith and Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio for the high-velocity direction and choreography, respectively, and to the six sprightly cast members—or seven, if you include DJ Reborn (visible throughout on a platform above Riccardo Hernandez’s arena-stage design).
Hip-hop has been familiar in mainstream New York theater since Hamilton burst on the scene with its exploration of our country’s founding. Syncing Ink is smaller in scale than Hamilton yet thematically ambitious. Njikam’s script suggests a good deal about the influence of the African diaspora’s oral tradition on African-American letters and thought and the way hip-hop, which evolved in urban neighborhoods of the 1970s, fits into middle-class youth culture today. What ticket buyers most need to know, though, is that Syncing Ink is a through-rapped show with a relentless beat and endearing vibe, plus humor and heart in abundance.
A co-production with the Alley Theatre of Houston), Syncing Ink runs through Oct. 19 at the Flea complex (20 Thomas St.) in Tribeca. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Mon. and Wed.–Sat.; matinees are at 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun. Tickets are $15 to $75, with lowest-price tickets available on a first come, first served basis by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting www.ovationtix.com.