Lincoln Center Theater Finds Itself a Hip-Hop Beat in Matt Sax's Clay

Sax solo

In the Bible, various figures insist that God, like a potter, forms humans out of earth: "Remember," pleads Job, "that you have fashioned me as clay."

Clifford, the suburban youth at the center of Matt Sax's Clay, doesn't care for the Lord's skills as a ceramicist. He wants a new shape, a different life. Frantic for experiences, he flees his dysfunctional Westchester home for Brooklyn, where he meets a bookstore owner–cum–hip-hop impresario named Sir John, who offers him a fresh language and a new name. Sax's play depicts an impressive act of self-creation: With rhymes, backbeats, and confidence, boyish Clifford transforms into MC Clay. The show—the first from Lincoln Center Theater's new programming initiative, LCT3—concludes in a triumphant concert.

Sax, an engagingly nerdy 24-year-old, plays the half-dozen characters in his one-man hip-hop musical. A very young playwright and performer, he's still learning the craft of character. The female figures, in particular—distraught mother, lusty stepmom—seem underwritten, and Sax portrays them with little more detail than crossed legs and strangled alto. But he clearly loves music and gives a sweet rendition of Clifford's discovery and eventual mastery of hip-hop—including an amusing early attempt when he yowls: "Yo, my dick is huge. I gotta Uzi . . . I'm bringing herpes back!"

If the characters lack fullness and the plot's somewhat simplistic, Sax does offer a panoply of lovely rhymes. Sure, some are obvious (breakup/makeup) or unsuccessful (door/mirror), but Sax supplies surprising ones, especially of the polysyllabic kind pioneered by Eminem (uncontrollable/hold of ya'; heaven-sent/temperament). When Sax struts around—microphone obscuring his face, lips buzzing like an outboard motor—the audience gives over to him entirely.

If Clay were an album, however, one would term it "overproduced." Director Eric Rosen has slung thousands of dollars of lighting equipment into the Duke's black-box and gorges on each effect. He's prodigal with the underscoring, too, and delineates each scene with the abrupt opening and closing of several curtains. These niceties distract from the script and performance. As the title suggests, Sax and Rosen ought to focus on the raw materials.

 
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