The Wizard of Hip — Photo: Chris Banks
The Wizard of Hip (Or When in Doubt, Slam Dunk) made its debut during the first Bush administration, just as the Hip Hop ’80s swung to the New Jack ’90s. Jordan still ruled the court, Michael Jackson was still Dangerous, and the show, a fast-paced, sharp-tongued account of an African-American everyman’s odyssey from birth to cool to hip written and performed by Thomas W. Jones II, was hailed as a revelation.
A hit Atlanta production spawned a national tour that introduced D.C. audiences to the assured authorial voice and performance talents of Jones. Now, Jones, the Artistic Associate of local company MetroStage, with dozens of subsequent writing, performing and directing credits to his name, has revived the breakthrough piece, updated with original music by William Knowles and a refreshed book.
MetroStage’s revival of The Wizard of Hip (★★½), also directed and choreographed by Jones, marks the performer’s long-awaited debut on his home stage. And he commands the spare set, designed by Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan, with an ease and comfort that warms the crowd. He also supplies boundless energy, matched amply by a stellar backup duo, the triple-threat Lady Doo Wops (Jasmine Eileen Coles and Kanysha Williams). Their infectious charm and camaraderie shines through in sweet harmonies and funky moves. Would were the book’s emotional transitions as silky smooth, or the small backing band, consisting of Knowles on keyboards, and Greg Holloway on drums, as snappy on their cues as the Lady Doo Wops.
The book is the more problematic issue — it’s dated. Cultural relevance matters in a deep-dive into hip. As the show suggests, hip and its cousin cool long have been viewed within the African-American community as the gleam on a black man’s armor. Hip is that intangible aura protecting a brother’s dignity, and projecting pride, in a sometimes hostile environment.
However, the show’s roster of role models that shape the psyche and self-image of Jones’s everyman character, Afro Jo, don’t always advance Wizard‘s ideas of hip. Ballers Wes Unseld, Jerry West, and D.C.’s own Elgin Baylor are all legends, all cool, but not exactly trenchant envoys of hip. If you’re trying to catch audiences up on a purportedly universal black male experience, teaching them how to say, “Solid,” like an extra out of Superfly doesn’t feel like the way to go.
The Wizard of Hip — Photo: Chris Banks
Jones and the play rely heavily on ’60s and ’70s lingo and images, both narratively and photographically, through stills and video clips projected onstage. Maxwell and Prince, timeless standard-bearers of cool, get name-checked and playlisted, but Isley Brothers soul is more Afro Jo’s jam.
There is room for J-Lo, and a throwaway line about living in a Kanye world, but not any substantive acknowledgement of what hip means now, in the years since Clinton blew his sax on Arsenio, since Biggie and Pac and Jay and Kendrick, since Neil Degrasse Tyson, since Moonlight, since “swag,” since Barack Hussein Obama.
Men of the new millennium might want to be hip like Poitier, or Willie Mays, but feelings about Bill Cosby definitely have changed since Wizard of Hip first came around. Afro Jo references the Cos favorably, then makes light of that particular anachronism with one of many groaning dad jokes that are hit or miss, at best (like one describing strict Catholic school nuns as “women with bad habits”).
As an inside-peek into a young, straight brotha’s cool, The Wizard of Hip does retain some edge. Jones slings plenty of locker-room talk about chicks and trim, unafraid to expose the selfish, sexist side of machismo. Then again, much of the material exploring romance and Afro Jo’s confusion about “New Age” sexual mores feels out-of-touch, especially his lament about modern day ladies requiring men to be sensitive.
Or make that sthenthitive, as pronounced with exaggeratedly feminine emphasis by Afro Jo. He also takes on the persona of a lisping gay named Andre, to poke more fun at the gradual, or too-sudden, de-masculinization of the modern male. In the words of the Lady Doo Wops: Afro Jo, you need to check yourself, before you wreck yourself. It’s 2017.
Lisping gay stereotypes notwithstanding, Jones’s groovy fireside chat about the African-American experience and the value of cool might just be more effective as nostalgia, in the vein of a Cooley High or Crooklyn, than as the incisive portrait of black male bravado it was conceived to be. And there’s no shame in that, bruh. Solid.
The Wizard of Hip (Or When in Doubt Slam Dunk) runs until Sept 17 at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St., in Alexandria, Va. Tickets are $40 to $60. Call 703-548-9044, or visit metrostage.org.