Flint Rep takes an unforgettable step into brotherhood and bonding
FLINT, MI–Theater demands much of its participants and every show has different dictates.
In Flint Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of James Anthony Tyler’s “Into the Side of a Hill,” the six actors bringing it to life create a breathtaking piece of theater by meeting an array of rigorous demands. From the display of raw emotion to the relentless pacing to the precise choreography of a very specific style, the cast demonstrates a level of skill and commitment that provides audience members with an unforgettable experience.
“Into the Side of a Hill” has been in development since 2019 and made an appearance at the 2022 New Works Festival in Flint. Tyler tells a story about a team of Black fraternity brothers at a historically Black college in Ohio who are putting together a stepping show to be performed on Sept. 11, 2004. Stepping is a percussive dance style with deep roots in African and Black communities. Throughout 90 minutes (with no intermission), the audience gets a sacred glimpse into how these men bond despite ideological differences, personality clashes and individual traumas.
Tyler commits to an authenticity that doesn’t shy away tackling difficult topics or raw language. It’s not a show meant to induce warm chuckles and polite applause while keeping the audience comfortable. Instead, it invites people into a space where the stakes are high, characters make mistakes and no outcome is guaranteed. Yes, there are times to laugh and yes, the show is highly entertaining, especially when the cast begins its impressive stepping performances. However, what lifts “Into the Side of a Hill” above an unremarkable slice-of-life drama, is that the characters weave commitment and unification through their conflicts and anger. The show challenges audiences to leave behind their preconceptions and to squirm rather than proffer easy answers or trite responses.
Ken-Matt Martin directs, bringing a concentrated vision that minimizes technical wizardry and design for a tight focus on relationship and emotion. He doubles as the choreographer, designing an intricate and demanding step routine that could believably be a competitively victorious show. More than just showing off the talent of the dance crew, Martin understands that the display is about conducting the tension in the room, telling a story and making the audience’s collective hearts beat more intensely. Stepping is more than just a plot element, it is the play’s underlying metaphor of connection, commitment and storytelling.
Brandon Micheal Hall plays the eldest dancer, Zarrel, a recently graduated alum of the fraternity who was the past president and still expects to be in charge. Hall digs deep into his character, ensuring that he is a multi-layered protagonist, one whose motivations and actions are complicated. He walks the tightrope of presenting Zarrel’s arrogance while subtly revealing the aspects of his personality that make his brothers love him.
David Guster, an actor who grew up with the company when it was Flint Youth Theater, plays Zarrel’s cousin Allen and is nearly the older man’s opposite. Lacking the same arrogant confidence, Guster creates a young man with an outer softness that masks his inner strength, compassion and deep commitment to his friends.
Vic, the Motor City roustabout, is played by Antonio Michael Woodard with an initial jaunty attitude and insolence. He invests Vic with an emotional veneer and distinct physicality that makes the eventual reveals more powerful. Woodard carefully manages the stripping away of the front Vic maintains to underline his vulnerability and hurt.
The ensemble is rounded out by Victor Musoni, Freddie Fulton and Brian Sullivan Taylor, all playing brothers with their own challenges and trauma.
Throughout the week that they rehearse the upcoming show, they wrestle with issues such as politics, the Iraq War, poverty, relationships, betrayal, religion, impending fatherhood, 9/11, grief and even celebrity connections.
Performed in the Elgood Theater, design elements are understated so as not to overshadow the intensity of the storytelling. Sydney Lynne designed a set evoking a classroom rehearsal space filled with simple pieces such as mirrors and chairs. Celeste Jennings dressed the actors in realistic college styles from the early 2000s while ensuring they had authentic gumboots and a flashy set of performance robes.
In a season that equally balances new works with classics of the theatrical canon, Flint Repertory Theatre is feeding its audience a well-balanced diet of pieces that challenge and inspire. It has launched “Into the Side of a Hill” in the manner it deserves, giving it an intense and powerful production that will hopefully inspire other theaters to pick it up.