ITHACA, N.Y. –– In response to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down performances for much of last year, the Hangar Theatre has planned an entirely outdoor season of shows for this summer –– the first of which is to star Damon J. Gillespie, a renowned TV actor known for his role as Robbie on the NBC show Rise.

Gillespie will star as T.O. in “The REALNESS: another break beat play” written by Idris Goodwin, and directed by Hangar alum, Kyle Haden. Haden’s involvement is actually one of the reasons Gillespie was drawn to audition –– he was one of his college acting teachers.

“His was the last acting class that I took for theater,” Gillespie said. “So this was a very, very incredible reunion.”

Besides his role as Robbie on NBC’s Rise, Gillespie has also had two major roles in the Netflix originals The Society, and Tiny Pretty Things in 2018 and 2019. His additional TV credits include appearances on Empire on Fox, and Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer. He is a Member of Actor’s Equity Association, and his theatre credits include Broadway productions of Newsies and Aladdin.

This show though, strikes a personal chord for Gillespie, who said he grew up listening to 90s hip-hop “This show goes out to every person who fell in love with hip-hop,” he said, adding “with such craziness in the world, why not strive for some realness?” 

Director Haden echoed Gillespie’s sentiment saying, “I feel like Idris wrote this for me; I could have been T.O. When I was T.O.’s age, music and finding “love” was the most important thing in my life. This story is woven in and around hip hop, so if you know that world, you’ll be excited to revisit it, but those new to hip-hop will enjoy it as well.” 

Written by playwright Idris Goodwin, The Realness tackles history and class collisions in a humorous and authentic story set to a distinct beat. Gillespie will star as T.O., who graduates from high school in 1996 and moves from the suburbs to the city, stepping into the hip-hop scene. He soon meets Prima, an MC (played by Angelica Santiago) who takes his breath away. T.O. poses as a music journalist to get close to her, but his story quickly catches up to him. 

This is Goodwin’s second”break beat” play –– his first was “Hype Man” which told the story of an unarmed black man being shot by police. The break beat name comes from the style in which the lines are read.

“It’s like rhythmic storytelling,” Gillespie said. “You know, in Shakespeare we have what’s called iambic pentameter, where they basically speak in rhythm, and the way I understand it is that it is a modern version of iambic pentameter, which would be spoken word, poetry or rap.”

In addition to Gillespie and Santiago, cast members include Rasell Holt as Lord Style, Ithaca College alum Nicholas Caycedo as Roy et al., and Kiziana Jean-Louis as Professor Brown et al. The show will start with a preview performance on Thursday, June 17 and an official opening on Friday, June 18. The show will close on Sunday, June 24.

The Hangar’s full 2021 Outdoor Mainstage season includes The Realness, Once, Sweeney Todd, Queens Girl In The World, and An Odyssey. For more information, visit the Hangar website here.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com