Hip-hop is one of the most appealing genres of music because of its ability to constantly change and evolve into whatever sound it needs or wants to be. Look at the drastic differences between its politically tinged Gil Scott-Heron beginnings versus today, a time when the world waits on edge to see Kanye West’s next beautiful, dark, twisted magnum opus. But these two poles aren’t as drastically different as they may seem. At its core, the genre is about expressing oneself in the most earnest way, and every rapper makes that their goal—whether they’re “fighting television” or doing “this one for the douchebags.” How to Break, a new play at Here by Aaron Jafferis and the Mixing Texts Collective, embraces the expressive foundation of the genre in its storytelling. Unfortunately. though, hip-hop and theater aren’t the same types of performance art, and don’t successfully work in the same ways.
In Break, directed by Christopher V. Edwards, we follow a couple of ill teenagers—Ana (Amber Wiliams), a popper and artist suffering from leukemia, and Joel (Pedro Morillo), a rapper and breaker with sickle cell anemia—whose similar interests in hip-hop and dance brings them together while they’re treated. Their relationship playfully develops as they bond over the inevitable challenges and fears that come with being trapped in a hospital, fighting a disease, and feeling unsure whether they’ll be alive in a month. Nick Vaughan’s set design eerily creates the sterile, claustrophobic feeling that comes with curtains and doctors, and the whole musical experience—live beat-boxing from Adam Matta and Yako 400—is smooth and exciting, giving the show an appreciated underlying rhythm.
What’s unfortunate is that, despite Break‘s technical accomplishments, it cannot overcome its trite dialogue and plot. This is a direct result of its hip-hop connection. Sure, rappers often shamelessly wear emotions on their sleeves, but that overt sincerity is forgiven due to innovative word play, lush beat production, and the fact that they’re telling stories. But when that’s introduced to the theater, there’s a desire to witness something more layered or less straightforward, rather than sitting through a predictable plot while being directly told every single exact detail about the way the characters think and feel. Not even Hova himself could make that approach work.