‘The Word Begins' brings edgy hip-hop theater to O.C.
Fasten your seat belts, Orange County. "The Word Begins" is a bucketful of theatrical ice water aimed straight at the audience, and everybody gets soaked by the spray of words in this two-man performance, which could best be described as hip-hop stream-of-consciousness theater performed at light speed.
Presented by South Coast Repertory in association with the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, "The Word Begins" is part of both the Segerstrom's Off Center Festival and SCR's Studio Series. It embodies the primary goal of both programs: to bring us art that's fresh, provocative and demands interaction.
Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews know their format and how to deliver it. They're both National Poetry Slam Grand Champions and have appeared on HBO's "Def Poetry." Oprah Winfrey asked them to honor Maya Angelou on her 75th birthday.
"The Word Begins" roams far and wide, but its universe could best be summed up as the myriad experiences and challenges of being an American man in the modern world. On a deeper level, it's a fearless investigation of the power and danger of words and a condemnation of America's current, deeply flawed state of racial relations.
Prejudice – blatant, casual, hidden or institutional – is a favorite topic. Connell's many characters include a well-meaning white liberal who realizes the futility of avoiding racist assumptions and a teen who doesn't see the absurdity of his hip urban black affectations.
Andrews ranges just as wildly. One of his funniest characters is a professorial type who tries without success to get through to the more-gangster-than-thou Caucasian kid and change his ways.
The performers' explorations start with childhood, when cynicism and worldliness are born. Connell's mother reveals that Superman and Santa Claus aren't real. Andrew's father fills his head with the countercultural empowerment slogans that were bandied about like gospel in the black America of his youth.
Those less-than-perfect upbringings spark honest self-examination and a bold decision that life has to have a vital goal to be worthwhile: "For us to stay silent is blasphemy," the performers declare. God's message to them: Do not make me regret creating you.
The show has few props or set pieces other than some chairs, but it benefits from an eye-catching visual element with Corwin Evans' bold projection designs. They give us a sharp and immediate sense of place, whether it's the scene of Martin Luther King's assassination or President Obama's "There is only one America" speech.
Does "The Word Begins" spill into moments of excess? Of course. I could have done without Connell's scatological HBO comedy star or the show's occasional lapses into out-and-out preaching. But these two performers are so practiced and skillful that any questionable material lasts for only a second or two.
The seemingly effortless virtuosity of Connell and Andrews makes me wonder how much director Robert Egan contributed to "The Word Begins." Perhaps I'm being naïve, but this wild and exhilarating ride seems like the product of two talented writer-actors who appreciate the genius of spontaneity and work together constantly.
Segerstrom Center president Terry Dwyer hinted that he's already thinking about the next Off Center Festival. Let's keep our fingers crossed that Connell and Andrews are part of it, and that the Segerstrom's future collaborations with South Coast Rep are just as successful.
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