Everyone has a story: the tale that regales the circumstances and events that make us who we are. In Clay, the one-man show currently running at the Kirk Douglass Theater in Culver City, the story is of the rise and evolution of a young hip-hop artist.
We met Clay in his make or break moment, just before his first big live performance. His mentor, Sir John, sees the blood on his face, but nevertheless coaxed the young man towards the stage, only to have the boy freeze; he can’t. When Sir John’s invigorating introduction fails to bring Clay out, the hip-hop MC invited the audience to go “back in time… open your eyes wide…”, to see what happened to Clay that has lead to this moment.
Where we are lead, is to Clay’s childhood, when everyone, including his soon to be divorced parents, called him Clifford. At ten years old, the biggest problem Clifford faced was holding his water during the child custody proceedings, of which he had little understanding in the first place. His dad, Jeffrey, helps Clifford out with his decision about whom Clifford should go live with full time. But once Clifford picks his Dad as instructed, he really doesn’t see his Mom as much as his Dad promised he would. Depressed and filled with self-loathing, Clifford’s Mom does not last very longer alone, and his Dad does not waste any time remarrying upon her demise.
Hip-hop finds Clifford at age seventeen when wonders south of Flatbush Avenue and stumbles upon an open mic night, MC’ed by bookstore proprietor, Sir John. The groove and lyrics are infectious and Clifford approaches Sir John afterwards, hoping that the Rapper will teach him. Hood cloaked Sir John agrees to teach Clifford for a parse fifty bucks a lesson. He instructs the boy on beat-boxing, of which Clifford seems to have a talent for once that muscle in him is awakened.
The next lesson is free-styling, during which Clifford tries to “flow” through his ideas of what hip-hop is about: such as how big his penis is, drinkin’ forties, doin’ bitches (much to the horror of Sir John). The mentor has Clifford start over, rapping about what he knows. The good news is Clifford starts to freestyle about making love to this girl; the bad news is the girl turns out to be his stepmom, Jackie.
Sir John stops charging Clifford for the lesson once he sees how similar they are, and once he sees that the boy is a natural hip-hop talent. He wants Clifford as his protégé. But Clifford resists since it would mean the end of his relationship with Jackie and leaving home. However, both circumstances come to past without any help from Sir John, and Clifford is faced with the moment when he must run “towards his fears”, or be destroyed by them.
The energy and pace of this one man show was truly impressive. Matt Sax has written and performed a striking piece filled with music, humor and emotion; all of which he gives for a solid 85 minutes, with only one very brief break to speak of. He circled the black raked quadrilateral stage, raised high against the black graffitied backdrop, taking the audience through time and place effortlessly. His vocal and physical characterizations are so strong that his only props: a mic, its stand, a chair, and the hood of his sweatshirt, are ample tools to bring these very different characters to life.
I love how Sir John breaks down for Clifford what exactly hip-hop is. In his first lessons, Clifford emulates the popular misconceptions that most people have about Hip-hop. The mentor instructs Clifford not to use the words bitch or hoe unless he is rapping “about a kennel or gardening”, because hip-hop is first and foremost about the truth and one’s individual experience. Perhaps the most hilarious segment was the seduction of poor Clifford, where we see him basically get molested by a microphone.
That Matt Sax created the characters and story and music are impressive enough. But I was most impressed that he sustained them all and made me believe. Moreover, the message that hip-hop gives voice to things and people who have had no means of expression in the past. For all those whom the “public eye avoids by design”, they now have a forum and means of expression through this ever evolving poetry. “Will you have to be tough or will you simply give up”, is the challenged issued by Sir John to Clifford, and I suspect by the writer to his audience as well.
Clay is currently running through October 14, 2007 at the Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washingon Blvd. in Culver City.
Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz