Author’s Note: I left this performance feeling so intimately familiar with the author/performer that I discovered a constant need to correct my inclination to refer to him by his first name. — K.B.
Phenomenal! That’s the first word that comes to mind. PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened its new season with StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance’s world-premiere production of Temples of Lung and Air: A Hip-Hop Odyssey Through Race and Identity. The piece is written and performed by UNC alumnus Kane Smego and directed by StreetSigns’ co-founder (and director of The Process Series at UNC) Joseph Megel. PlayMakers has named the 2018-19 season: “Shifting Ground: Theatre That Moves,” and that description fits Smego’s work to a “T.”
One need not be a fan of poetry or of hip-hop to appreciate every minute of this event. Scenic designer Torry Bend’s nearly bare stage has, as its backdrop, a sculpture representing a huge stack of what we used to call “boomboxes.” There is a door in the stage right wall, and there is some paint on the floor to delineate a few different performance areas. A microphone-on-a-stand occupies a square platform that is downstage-center, jutting forward of, but connected to the main stage.
The lights go down, and sound designer Eric Alexander Collins fills the room with a wind-like whoosh that continues as lighting/projection designer Dominic Abbenante brings up a representation of stars-in-deep-space on the back walls; the sound and lighting effects combine to make us feel as though we have been thrust into the eternal. In that hypnotic moment, we first hear Kane Smego’s voice. After his initial “piece,” stage lights come up; and he speaks with us, inviting us to participate with “claps and snaps” and “grandma’s cookies’ sounds” — to which the audience responds, “Mmmmmmmmmm.”
What follows, as I said before, is nothing short of phenomenal. Smego pulls us along with him at a fantastic speed as he examines his own life, human life itself, and some truths about our American culture. In our flight with him, we touch down at critical points in his life, learning about him (and about ourselves) through his anecdotes, some told in prose and some in verse.
Into the texture of his narrative, he weaves expertly delivered poetry and hip-hop — tastefully and poignantly throughout — exploring such subjects as possessing-through-the-act-of-naming, borders, rules-enforced-by-grammar-Nazis, the “Confederate” flag, what he refers to as “Pilgrims-selling-moccasins,” race, and the arts of both poetry and hip-hop. He supplies, for the novice, an essential-yet-brief course in Hip-Hop 101 (including definitions of the terms “MC” and “DJ” and how both contribute their part to the whole). Additionally, he shares some historical facts that offer interesting comments on the world of today.
Kane Smego can definitely turn a phrase. He told us that he had always been “a clown and a poet,” that he had been “performing poetry since before I could read.” We learned that his physician father “could only hear God’s voice with his stethoscope on,” that his mother was a “conjurer,” and that when his mother’s long-time boyfriend spoke, it “sounded like a Jeopardy! question.” He treated us to phrases like “just a parakeet in Jim Crow’s living room” and “strange second-hand smoke of blackness.” And then there are the profound statements: “Poetry ain’t nothin’ new” and “Poetry taught me vulnerable, but it also taught me counter-punch.” As tantalizing as they sound, just wait until you hear those pieces woven into the fabric of the whole.
The lights move smoothly with Smego as he shifts from one performing area to another, moving as he ends one movement and begins another. He is joined at a few intervals by Beatboxer Brentton Harrison; and let’s just make this one understatement: it is obvious that they have worked together before! And let’s not forget the projections — time after time, images appear on the back walls, augmenting the words and actions on the stage. There is a bit of stand-up comedy and a parody of a silly TV show. It would be an exaggeration to say that “Temples of Lung and Air has it all”; but it delivers a lot, and does so with aplomb!
A wise person once offered to give me two bits advice. She then told me that the first is “Always leave your audience wanting more.” Then she walked away. I cannot help but believe that Kane Smego was listening to her, too.
Opening night was sold out, so make your reservations ASAP!
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 23rd Raleigh, NC Talkin’ Broadway: Raleigh/Durham review by Garrett Southerland: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/rd/rd57.html; Aug. 23rd Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/08/temples-of-lung-and-air-tackles-tough-questions-and-inspires-great-thought/; Aug. 22nd Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Kevin J. Rowsey II: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/in-temples-of-lung-and-air-spoken-word-star-kane-smego-drops-real-talk-on-hip-hop-and-white-privilege/Content?oid=17190645; and Aug. 15th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with playwright-performer Kane Smego, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://www.wunc.org/post/one-man-hip-hop-odyssey-spotlights-cypher. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 22nd Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/08/on-aug-22-26-playmakers-rep-will-present-the-world-premiere-of-kane-smegos-temples-of-lung-and-air/.)
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and PlayMakers Repertory Company present TEMPLES OF LUNG AND AIR: A HIP-HOP ODYSSEY THROUGH RACE AND IDENTITY, a world premiere written and performed by Kane Smego and directed by Joseph Megel, at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Aug. 24, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 26 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $35 ($10 students with valid UNC photo ID), except $10 general admission for the late-night show at 10:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24th, and $15 general admission for Community Night at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 26th.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=dAgs46OduGg.
2018-19 SEASON (Shifting Ground: Theatre That Moves): http://playmakersrep.org/season/2018-2019/
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.piedmontperformancefactory.org/#!streetsigns/c247l, https://www.facebook.com/streetsignscenter/home, and https://twitter.com/streetsignsctr.
PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: There will be 30-minute post-show talkbacks and pass-the-mic sessions, with the playwright/performer, members of the show’s creative team, and subject-matter experts, following each performance. (Click here and scroll down for details.)
Kane D. Smego (Los Angeles, CA playwright and performer and UNC alumnus): http://www.kanesmego.com/ (official website), https://playmakersrep.org/artists/kane-smego/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2737327 (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/kanesmego (Twitter page).
Joseph Megel (Pittsboro, NC director and artist in Residence at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): https://playmakersrep.org/artists/joseph-megel/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://www.processseries.unc.edu/about (UNC Process Series bio), https://comm.unc.edu/people/department-faculty/joseph-megel/ (UNC faculty bio), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4904540/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/joseph.megel (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/JosephMegel (Twitter page).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.