In the world of Syncing Ink (at the Flea Theater), directed by Niegel Smith and written by NSangou Njikam, hip-hop is spiritual. The musically inflected story’s key elements and players are derived from the pantheon of gods and spirits of the Yoruba faith, a traditional Nigerian religion. The characters take their form through different orishas (gods); using words, rhythm, and dance, the ensemble tells a story of heritage, spirituality, and self-discovery.
Gordon (played by Njikam), the hero of Syncing Ink, is destined to become Shango, the Yoruba spirit of ultimate masculine power, the patron of music and war, the fire-bearer. Shango was born for battle, and that’s Gordon’s preordained fate. (The top of the show provides a glimpse of this haloed destiny, with Gordon center stage as a huddle of figures chant in Yoruba around him.) However, before he can earn such a noble status, Gordon — in the tradition of many adolescent coming-of-age protagonists — must complete a journey of personal growth. A lanky nerd, Gordon hasn’t the faintest idea of the profound import of his existence; he’s eager, but shy, and his self-doubt stands in contrast to the confidence of his classmates. They each step up to the occasion, passing the mic with zest and zeal, but Gordon sticks to the sidelines, watching on in admiration. He isn’t a real MC — or, at least, not yet.
The story starts in Langston Hughes High School, where the backdrop of an English class evolves into an incubator for Gordon to hone his rap skills. His teacher, the wise Baba (the brilliant Adesola Osakalumi, from the Tony Award–winning Fela!), embodies Obatala, the creator and father of all orishas. Baba guides the students, leading them to discover the light of the black literary canon by teaching works from the likes of Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes. Rapper-in-training Gordon breaks off into soliloquies every now and then, processing his progress and questioning his next moves. He also gets some help from a fellow classmate, Ice Cold (Elisha Lawson, bringing sharp comedic timing), who represents the orisha Esu — the trickster. Gordon’s rival is Jamal (Nuri Hazzard), the embodiment of Ogun — the creative alpha-warrior spirit. Jamal’s outsize charisma almost outshines his arrogance.
Within Gordon’s orbit of friends and foes, there’s also Mona Lisa (the strong, sultry McKenzie Frye), who enters the classroom wearing all yellow, capturing the spirit of Osun, whose beauty, divine femininity, and sensuality breeds creativity. Mona Lisa is a fleeting yet fixed force in the narrative: Her presence is both inspirational and divisive to the men around her, serving at once as a muse and a distraction to both Jamal (who vies for her attention) and Gordon (who fears it). She’s a catalyst to their conflict, and relishes every second of her part, continually stirring the pot with a warm smile.
As Ice Cold schools Gordon in the optics of rapping — instructing him to have his “rapper face” down pat, for instance — Sweet Tea (the vivacious, vicious Kara Young) teaches Gordon to master the art of being an MC. Sweet Tea embodies the spirit of Oya — the force of wind and bringer of change — and the transformations she undergoes are emblematic of the evolution of hip-hop itself. In the high school scenes, she’s introduced as ready and willing to prove herself in the male-dominated classroom. In the play’s transition to college, at Mecca University — what’s supposed to be a historically black college — she becomes Queen Tea, a majestic, Queen Latifah–like persona. In her final stage of maturation, she becomes Nefertiti; having attained all the knowledge-of-self she needs, she is now able to turn and mentor others. She begins grooming Gordon for his fate and gets him to heed his ancestral calling. (Literal phone calls from Gordon’s father at pivotal points throughout the show remind our protagonist that he was meant to rap.) Gordon and Nefertiti’s relationship blossoms into full-fledged romance, culminating in a spirited rendition of the lyrics to Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s “You’re All I Need.”
The soundtrack of the show is run live by DJ Reborn, who plays Oludumare — the supreme creator. Positioned high above the stage, churning out tunes and breaks behind her booth, DJ Reborn comes to resemble an all-seeing figure, which is fitting: The old-school vibe of the show pays homage to the principle of golden age rap, when it was the DJ, not the rapper, who reigned supreme. In the Yoruba pantheon, Oludumare is a genderless force, but in Njikam’s vision, Oludumare takes the female form, as the Mutha.
With rapid-fire allusions to legendary lyrics and familiar beats from classic rap tracks, the script and its attendant soundtrack are downright heaven for studious hip-hop fans. When Jamal graduates high school and goes on to attend Georgetown, he starts making a new genre of conscious trap music, called “crap.” But even with its subtle haranguing of new-school rappers, Syncing Ink doesn’t seem aged, and maintains just enough of the vitality that’s so integral to the culture. It even climaxes in the way that only a hip-hop play could: with a rap battle. Gordon and Jamal go bar for bar with witty, real-time punchlines in ten minutes of electrifying, unscripted freestyling. Gordon rises to the occasion and conquers his opponent, leaving his destiny, finally, fulfilled. As the saying goes, “the meek shall inherit the earth” — or, in this case, the mic.