rowing up as one of the few African-American kids in a predominantly white Detroit suburb, Idris Goodwin had a conflicted childhood.
"On the one hand, Rochester Hills was a great place to grow up," says the 36-year-old playwright, spoken word artist and rapper. "But there were issues for me as a black kid who still had ties to the city."
As a high school sophomore, Goodwin failed English because he spent so much time writing rhymes. Yet, it's also how he found himself. "Hip-hop helped me wrestle with the issue of really questioning where I belonged," he says. "Rap music was blowing the minds of kids everywhere."
His play, How We Got On, is an ode to that upbringing. The coming of age story, which the Cleveland Play House performs Oct. 24 to Nov. 16 at Outcalt Theatre, tells of three suburban teenagers brought together by their love of hip-hop. Against a musical backdrop of Public Enemy, N.W.A. and Big Daddy Kane, the kids also wrestle with their own identities and creative differences to produce a rap song demo.
"When it first started, the music was easier in some way," says Goodwin, who teaches performance, writing and hip-hop aesthetics at Colorado College. "It hadn't met the clubs yet. I wanted to show that wide-eyed teenage bravado we felt for it."
Native Clevelander Cyndii Johnson, a graduate of the Cleveland School of the Arts, portrays Luann, one of Goodwin's rappers. "I think this [play] changes what theater is," says the 23-year-old actress. "You can't just read it. You have to hear it."
Johnson has worked with Goodwin before, appearing in his Remix 38, a collage of short plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. "Idris has an energy and that same Midwest vibe that I do," she says.
As a longtime rap fan, Johnson is comfortable in her role. "My first concert ever was a Kris Kross concert," she says.
Yet Goodwin, who will attend the opening of the play, attributes the success of How We Got On to its universal theme of self-discovery. "It wears the clothes of hip-hop, but it's really a very accessible character piece," he says. "By and large, all people who come to the theater are dreamers. They can relate to the dreams of these kids."