Some kinds of events in the real world seem so incomprehensible and inexplicable that we need to rewrite them and create our own version. Take the the all-too-familiar headline in which a young man of colour is shot after an encounter with police. We immediately begin to sift through the details, trying to figure out what went wrong and how we would have handled things differently. The police over-reacted. The police were racists. The young man was selling drugs. The young man resisted arrest. This soul searching of blame is at the heart of Omari Newton’s new work, Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy Of. Young Haitian DJ Sam-I-Am is shot on the eve of his band’s record release. The three surviving band members assess and respond to the situation.
In a balls-out performance band rappers Jewel (K!m Possible) and Sal (Tristan D. Lalla) fight with producer Chase (Jordan Waunch) over the best course of action. Chase wants the show to go on, while Sal intends to incite a riot against the police. However, the two square off burdened with guilty consciences as both contributed to Sam’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jewel is torn between the two men, but has a different ghost that haunts her; in the misogynistic world of hip hop, she is constantly bullied as a Filipina female rapper. She uses Sam’s shooting as a reason to step up her aggression in a hostile world. Opposing her is Sal’s younger and highly educated sister Naomi (Letitia Brookes), who as the voice of reason identifies violence as the root of the entire problem. Watching over all is poetic First Nations transvestite Shaneinei (Billy Maveras) who is an eyewitness that will not and can not speak.
The actors come to this complex play with passion and commitment. They are fully realized characters who push blood through the play and give it a strong beating heart. Strong performances abound. Jewel in particular is a ball of raging energy as she drops N-bombs in songs and identifies with black culture. The raps are lyrically rich, a smart way to express the inner life of the characters. The play makes good points about the artist’s relationship to his audience. Even though singing about violence isn’t the same as doing violence, Sal shows that words can be directed to different ends. He comes to understand the power of his own words is not just in expressing his emotions, but also in touching the emotions of others.
Perhaps less secure is the structure of the plot itself. The story is compelling story, but greater dramatic effect could be achieved. Several of the last minute plot twists seem to come from nowhere and earlier allusions might have made them less artificial. A few character traits seem to be added for the sake of making a point. In particular, Chase’s lack of understanding about racial profiling is surprisingly ignorant for a person whose closest and oldest friends are visible minorities. Chase in general is driven to keep the band financially afloat, but it would be better to clarify that his most questionable endeavors are out of deep love and commitment, not cool calculations. The conflict between artist and manager, between making art and remembering that nothing is free, seems far too weighted on the side of the artist.
That said, this acting is excellent and the overall story moving. All actors show up and champion this love letter to hip hop with ferocity and pride.