“How We Got On” (2012) debuted Friday night to a packed Curtis Hall as the first production by Tufts’ Black theater company, Envision, created by sophomores Chance Walker and Elias Swartz. The show tells the stories of three suburban Black teens and their growing passion for the art of rap during the inception of the hip-hop genre. As the show goes on, main characters Hank (Dylan Bell), Julian (Moriah Granger) and Luann (Marsha Germain) cycle through the stage like tapes in a boombox, telling their stories of growing pains and an MTV-fueled passion for rap.
“How We Got On,” written by Idris Goodwin, plays like an album itself. As the show introduces the idea of mixing and sampling, the characters crossfade back and forth like verses and stories chanted in a beat of their own. The Selectors (Donovan Sanders, Sanaa Gordon, Laure Mandiamy and Nia Goodall) are the guides between the audience and the story, offering important background information through dreamy interludes from scene to scene. What builds the story together are the different musical techniques the characters build on: writing, sampling and freestyling. They take on three forms in the story, first in the literal music, then in the metaphorical storytelling and finally as allegorical lessons for the characters to live by.
Director Chance Walker intentionally chose “How We Got On” as a representation of Black joy.
“I think it’s a story that brings out Black joy. … So to have these teenagers just talking about hip-hop and not trauma or anything like that, it’s just really beautiful,” Walker said.
“How We Got On” is a story celebrating the underdog tale of hip-hop culture, focusing on celebrations of inventiveness, persistence and authenticity consistent in Black art. Watching the growth of hip-hop and music innovation through the lens of teens in the ‘80s brings context to better appreciate how hip-hop has grown into one of the most popular music genres. The story strays from the popular tropes of art depicting Black people in contexts of slavery and Jim Crow. These stories, though important, may diminish the Black experience to a struggle and fight rather than a celebration of the culture and community that has changed modern pop culture.
The creation of “How We Got On” and Envision is paved with love, duty and ambition.
“[My] idea is to come out really big, and come out swinging and make Envision’s debut larger than life,” Walker said.
Elias Swartz, the co-creator of Envision and stage manager for “How We Got On,” came into the project with little theater experience but thoroughly dedicated himself to the project.
“If I wasn’t involved in the club, I would really appreciate having a Black theater club to be able to hear Black stories,” Swartz said. “[I felt a] sense of duty to the community. I wanted to give this to the community [to] help build a stronger space and help people hear Black art.”
The first of our three leads introduced is Hank, a 15-year-old rapper on The Hill trying to make the best suburban rap song by living, breathing and dreaming of rap. Hank, or his stage name, John Henry, reflects the perseverance and creativity present in Black art. He creates a mixtape out of a mic and recorder, a reflection of the ingenuity of Black art arising from unexpected places. That creativity is best conveyed by the Selectors: “You see cardboard box, I see dance floor. You see train, I see canvas. You see record player, I see instrument.” Bell gives a steady performance as the main character the audience wants to root for, demonstrating his range in acting, rapping and comedy. Julian, a teen struggling with mounting expectations of success from the other side of The Hill, mimics the confidence and bravado in the rap performances he sees on TV despite the turmoil in his home. To him, rap is a place to be vulnerable. Granger is someone who director Chance Walker noted to watch out for. She brings an enrapturing stage presence that astounds during each rap performance. Finally, the play’s last character, Luann, is driven by her love for rap despite familial pressure and gender barriers in music. Marsha Germain, who plays Luann, brings stylistic intonations and inflections drawn from her background in poetry. The cast, each with harmonizing talents, is a pleasure to watch as they perform so intimately while the trains echo.
It’s also important to note that none of the actors are performing arts majors. Before the creation of Envision, Tufts had not seen any Black performing arts groups in years. Apart from “Almanac,” Walker’s initial inspiration for Envision, features for Black and brown performers in Tufts theater had been sparse. It’s easy to relate this emptiness in the space to the lack of Black and brown performers at Tufts, a predominantly white institution, but Envision clearly demonstrates the strength and talent of Black performers already present on campus. Swartz reflected on this mass of talented Black performers on campus.
“The script we had for this was initially supposed to be for three people. … But when we had our auditions, we had a surprisingly large turnout from what I expected,” Swartz said. Envision exhibits the need and impact identity-based communities have on campus as they propel creativity and diversity.
“How We Got On” was truly a production of the community. Envision's status as a TCU-recognized organization is currently pending, which means they did not receive TCU funding for their first show. Because of this, the production team needed to be resourceful.
“We were really lucky in that we were really well connected with the community. So for that backdrop you saw, we had a friend paint that and we helped paint it too,” Swartz said. “We asked [for] favors here and there.”
Envision’s first production promises a growing space for Black creativity. As for the future of Envision, Walker hopes to create a community space to celebrate local Black artists in addition to a performing group.
“I think Envision will go far and be really big,” Walker said. “There’s just so much untapped potential. … I hope a ton of other schools in Boston and nationally start their own Black theater.”
The group hopes to create a sustainable organization to serve future students and continue their mission of featuring Black stories and creators.