Culture Writer Frankie Rhodes reviews a moving touring production of Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Spendid SunsWritten by Frankie Rhodes on 17th May 2019
‘The Legend of Mike Smith’ by Soweto Kinch @ The REP
With the Birmingham Repertory Theatre having been closed for the last two and a half years, the production which opens its new space, the STUDIO, needs to be good. The Legend of Mike Smith is better than that.
Jazz musician and rapper Soweto Kinch brings a blend of jazz, hip hop and physical theatre to the REP in a lively, witty and thought-provoking production about Mike Smith, an up-and-coming rapper. The play – if it can be called that; Kinch’s production defies genre labels – follows a day in the life of Smith: he has twenty-four hours to write a new track to impress a record label.
Mike struggles with many obstacles, including racial stereotyping, the record company’s desire for something more ‘commercial’, and himself. One of the main features of the production is the exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins: temptation is Mike’s biggest hurdle, and he is his own worst enemy at times.
What is most interesting about the production is that three people actually play Mike: Dancer, Spoken Word artist and actor Ricardo Da Silva plays the everyday Mike, while jazz musician and dancer Tyrone Isaac Stuart, and Soweto Kinch himself play the ‘sinful’ versions, using rap and dance to communicate Mike’s journey.
The music that accompanies the production is actually taken from Kinch’s album. It is an exciting blend of jazz and hip hop. In the Q&A session after the performance, Kinch admitted that some of the music is improvised, or rather, as with jazz music, gaps are intentionally left to allow for improvisation. This is an exciting element to the production, as no one performance will be exactly the same.
This also applies to Kinch’s rapping; during one section of the performance, he improvises entirely, using audience members as his inspiration. The results are hilarious, but utterly impressive: Kinch has sharp wit and is very self-aware.
This self-awareness is also an important element to the production. During Da Silva’s favourite ‘sin’, Mike becomes filled with lust, and Kinch subsequently creates a misogynistic rap that is typical of what one might associate with mainstream hip hop. Kinch revealed that he wanted this section to be embarrassing; he is aware of the inherent misogyny in some hip hop, and therefore wanted to show how disconcerting it is (the inclusion of a mandatory ‘Your grandma’ slur is a testament to this). Kinch has a history in battle rap, claiming that this is the most exciting time for the genre, citing Don’t Flop as a major factor in this. Battle rap is often frowned upon due to its nature: the point is to offend, and this often results in misogynistic and homophobic exchanges. However, Kinch claims that battle rap has its own language, much like jazz has its own, and therefore he was very aware of working within that language when creating this section of the show. Most importantly, this section requires audience participation, and Da Silva admitted that it is his favourite part, purely because each audience reacts in a different way.
Kinch’s rapping is exceptional, but Da Silva and Stuart’s dancing is also mesmerising – particularly Stuart’s. We are subjected to a bit of twerking (but it is done very well), and street and contemporary dance are used, along with some krumping. The Legend of Mike Smith is a truly sensory experience: not only are we treated to wonderful music and dance, the performances are complemented by a series of animations which are projected onto a screen and the floor, all helping to create Mike’s world.
The blending of dance and music styles captures what Kinch is trying to achieve: a production that is difficult to define. He admits that he has grown tired of MCs and Spoken Word artists trying to define and separate themselves. What Kinch wants to do, ultimately, is make all genres accessible to everyone. He appears to be succeeding: the audience at the REP has certainly been mixed, and have yet thoroughly enjoyed the show. Kinch states: ‘All art is specific in origin, but universal in its nature.’
With sin at the heart of its subject matter, one could be led to think that Kinch is preaching; this is simply not the case. The point of the show isn't to show that Mike has descended into sin and therefore is a bad person. Kinch says that the point is to move away from the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins being a means to cause guilt: he wishes to instill a freedom from our idea of sin - good and bad are not clear-cut.
To make the production appeal to the masses, there are plans for it to become a far more interactive experience as the production develops. At one point, a proud Mike references someone challenging him to a rap battle; an actual rap battle or open mic might take place one day, but there is also a Twitter hash tag that becomes live during the performance, in which audience members can battle Mike through tweet; there are plans for these to be shown on the screen.
Nonetheless, even without these interactive experiences, the show is truly exciting and an excellent way for the STUDIO to open its doors. For those who are faint-hearted and don’t like the third wall to be broken, I advise you to stay well away.
The Legend of Mike Smith runs at the REP until the 28th September. To book tickets, visit the REP website.