Money and Chance are two young men from the streets who have committed themselves to hitting the big time as rappers and doing it with artistic integrity. They dub themselves "No Plan B," the name as much mission statement as mantra. And yet much of Steve Broadnax and Michael Bordner's hip-hop musical Smash/Hit! — receiving its premiere at the Black Rep under the direction of Ron Himes — is about the various plan B's that impede the duo's progress.
It's an up-and-down ride, this ascent to the top. The first act grinds along, hampered by too many short scenes (fifteen in all!) that divert the forward motion of the narrative. And yet despite the discursive nature of the telling, there's a compelling story behind the chronological jumps and sidesteps. At its heart Smash/Hit! is about two childhood friends struggling to navigate adulthood and remain friends and artistic partners.
Ronald L. Conner plays Money, a deeply wounded soul who believes No Plan B's music should reflect the reality of life's pain. His mother died when he was young, and his father was an absentee alcoholic. Early in the evening, he learns his father has died, an event Money channels into the song "Hate Me for That." Delivered a cappella, it's a litany of every physical feature he inherited from Dad, and how each one makes Money hate himself more. Conner spits out the lyrics in a hoarse whisper, biting off the end of each line as he seethes. It's a powerful depiction of the burden Money carries around inside himself and sets the stage for both his single-mindedness and his selfishness.
Chance, meanwhile, inherits his infectious grin and frequent laughter from actor Matthew Galbreath. He's the joker, the one who breaks Money's moodiness with levity and frequent horseplay. Chance appears to exist only in Money's orbit, but that's only because he's hiding in plain sight. Chance has a secret life that he keeps from even his closest friend — he's on the downlow, which is a career killer in rap. It's also, Chance fears, a friendship killer, and so Chance maintains his cheerful demeanor to deflect any doubts about who he is.
The first big bump in No Plan B's career comes when Money gets his girlfriend Joi (FeliceSkye) pregnant. Determined to be the father he never had, Money decides he'll enlist in the army — and that Chance will enlist with him, to keep the group together. Chance refuses, and so the group stalls out while Money is sent into combat in Iraq.
He returns a changed man. Suffering from PTSD, Money has trouble readjusting to civilian life and resents Chance's decision to stay stateside. Many scenes roll by as the two argue and make up, and as Joi urges Money to seek psychiatric help. No Plan B makes slow professional progress, only to have Money to set them back through an angry outburst or an untimely flashback. After yet another big breakup, Joi separates the pair, telling them, "You both need to grow up." It's advice the two friends could have used much earlier in the evening, but better late than never.
Much of the second act is given over to Money and Chance's struggle over the artistic direction of the group. Will they write something commercial to cash in, or will they hew to Money's belief in the purity of their lyrics and message? Smash/Hit! tries to have it both ways: There's a sell-out single and there's an artistic success. Perhaps its a fitting finish for Chance and Money, who try to be two things at once for far too long before finally landing together.