The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Review | Illinois Theatre’s ‘The Realness’ is an impactful experience of hip-hop, love, society

“The Realness: A Break Beat Play,” directed by Aaron Muñoz, professor in FAA, explores the journey of Thomas, better known as T.O., as he moves from the secluded suburbs to the city for college. 

While there, T.O. envelopes himself in the “underground” hip-hop scene and explores what it means to be authentic in an environment he was not born into. 

The Studio Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was an excellent choice of location for this production to take place. The smaller setting allows for immersion to thrive. When the bass hits, you can sense the vibration in your seat. When the characters hit a blunt, you can smell the secondhand smoke.

Additionally, the theater’s setup complements the interactive engagement aspect found in the play’s writing. 

Two grandstand-like structures are lined with chairs for the audience. These structures square a corner in the room. Across from the audience sits a large, stair-like structure, facing parallel so the steps’ side profile is visible. The remaining space is free for the actors to roam.

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    This arrangement allows for the actors to easily interact with the audience, blurring the lines between audience members and supernumerary. It was joyful to watch audience members receive flowers from an up-and-coming hip-hop artist. Call-and-response sections where the audience was asked to cheer livened up the room. 

    Movement choreography, led by Brett Ashley Robinson, professor in FAA, was a highlight of “The Realness.” 

    When young rapper Roy, played by Tony Garcia, senior in FAA, pantomimed the wordplay to a track he was working on, the transition from gesture to gesture was executed with precision. That small sequence stands out as a showing of the cast’s impeccable talent.

    T.O. was a constant throughline in the story. Actor Jamal Turner, senior in FAA, excelled in the two-hour production, where the character was on stage for the majority of the time. Difficult monologues and lack of off-stage time did not deter Turner from succeeding in the intense role. 

    Prima, played by Jailene Torres, senior in FAA, is T.O.’s love interest. Torres perfectly encapsulated the depth of Prima and the nuances in Prima’s character development. 

    Y’vonne Rose Smith, graduate student studying theater, was another standout performer in the show. Her scornfulness and caringness as character Professor Brown embodied the strict yet kindhearted attitude many great professors possess.

    As music is a central element of the play, it was a pleasure to see sound design be center-stage. Motifs were given to many of the characters, and the musical production lent itself to every scene.

    Though the societal analysis in “The Realness” was intriguing, the implementation felt overambitious at times. Allusions to gentrification were barely developed, with the concept being properly introduced only in the last 10 minutes of the show and only being used as a vehicle for the main two characters, T.O. and Prima, a rapper, to see each other again after a fight. 

    In said fight, T.O. gifts Prima recording studio time for Christmas. Prima, who takes pride in her work and family, does not wish to take it and an argument ensues. Prima communicates her feelings of unfairness: T.O. has the opportunity to ignore school, as he has economic stability to fall back on, while she cannot. 

    The discourse between the two, from a narrative and thematic stance, is beautifully crafted, touching on many societal struggles pertinent in the ’90s and today. The back-and-forth between the two is extremely memorable and moving. 

    However, it is the resolution to said argument that feels rushed. The two characters simply made up upon seeing one another for the first time in a while. Very little substance was in the reconciliation. It was a whiplash of love.

    Nevertheless, the play overall excels in social commentary; exploring how the death of an icon negatively impacts a community, social mobility in the face of adversity and interplay between race, economic status, authenticity and opportunity, to name a few. “The Realness” is a unique experience that fans of theater, hip-hop or simply a good time cannot miss.

    “The Realness” is currently being performed at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. While all performances are currently sold out, anyone wishing to see the play can join a waiting list here.


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