THEATRE REVIEW: Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Spoken World
by Couch Sessions
“Don’t confuse your art with your life. Embody what you write.”
~ MARC BAMUTHI JOSEPH
I have known for years that in every sense of the term, Marc Bamuthi Joseph works. He also doesn’t move. He IS movement. Last Sunday, January 9th, I sat eagerly awaiting my first live MBJ performance in a place that always feels like home, one whose very name says, “you already know what we do, now come in and move with us”: Dance Place. Since I moved to DC in 2001, I have danced furiously, taught joyfully, eaten and shopped at their annual Dance Africa Festival. I’ve shared some of the rawest moments of my creative adulthood at this family-friendly community space. In 2011, I vowed as an arts manager to renew my personal commitment to eliminating any and all barriers to access in the arts. In this regard, Dance Place has always been exemplary in ensuring that everyone is welcome. They continue to “transform lives… [educate], inspire personal growth, professional success, physical wellness and community engagement.” So, I was honored when DP’s Marketing Director asked me to serve as a community marketing partner via my five-woman, minority-owned, artist-manager collective, clutch mgmt. @bamuthi was not hard to promote. As one of the country’s leading voices in performance, arts education and artistic curation, we just had to share it with the DMV community. Bamuthi and his super-human, one-man musical accompanist, Ajayi Jackson, played to nearly sold out crowds both nights.
Although some Couch Sessions readers might not be familiar with “Bamuthi,” the arts innovator has done several performances with giants CS readers will easily identify: Ben Harper, De La Soul, The Roots, Kanye West, Saul Williams, Cody Chestnutt, Blackalicious, Jill Scott, Mos Def, Sonia Sanchez, Gil Scott Heron, The Last Poets, Amiri Baraka, Danny Hoch and many others. And it shows. On this particular evening, Bamuthi offered a moving self-portrait of a man both burdened and blissful at the idea of imminent fatherhood in an excerpt from Word Becomes Flesh, several spoken/movement collages of hip-hop’s “glocalization” from Bosnia to Tokyo in the break/s, and a haunting yet inspiring view of the ‘hood and what environmental justice looks like in under-resourced communities in red, black and GREEN: a blues. For some, vignette-style presentation is unnerving. I overheard a few audience members lamenting not getting enough of the narrative. But, to this reviewer, the audience wanting more is a sign of artistic accomplishment rather than an editing oversight. The #Smartist knows this. The #Smartist teases.
A #Smartist is one who establishes ethos early, gets you to love him/her unconditionally and doesn’t let go of your heart-throat-soul-mind-attention-breath-eyes-ears until s/he has expressed what it is s/he has come to say.
Photo courtesy of Willamette Week.
In Bamuthi’s world “the story begins in the middle.” Bamuthi is a #Smartist through and through. In his own words, “we [artists] all want a moment of your time, dear art presenter…just a moment to really. be. seen…” And in this attention-spanless world of cop.lights.flash.lights.spot.lights.strobe.lights.street.lights, just being seen is a daily struggle worth the standing ovation Bamuthi commanded. On a Sunday afternoon, he windmilled, shouted and seduced us into Saturday evening. This, dear readers, is an act of time-space suspension only masters of the storytelling craft can manage. It’s a gift from performer to audience, a twilight trance that lodges itself in your memory, causing theatregoers to solemnly insist, “We need to go for a drink and debrief this sh*t,” (more eavesdropping on my part).
This kind of art matters, and not just in the “its good for you, like broccoli” way some people attribute to getting “cultured.” It matters because implicit in the breathlessness and sweat that followed Bamuthi’s first piece, the 100 or so individuals who gathered at DP were all engaged in profound thought. Thought leads to action. Action leads to change. #ArtIsWork
What does it mean for a Black man of Haitian descent to admit bravely that he is discovering his own whiteness and that his father stopped truly SEEING him at age nine?
How can we reverse the “green” marketing campaigns sold to us by toxic institutions to consider what truly SUSTAINS living in our [Brown] communities?
“What would these Haitian elders say if they knew my kid’s half Chinese and my girlfriend’s white?”
If American wealth and culture are one, did our immigrant parents “make it”? How did they expect us to navigate this thing we call America if they insisted on denying that fact?
In that special moment, our collective subconscious was having the race dialogue President Obama–along with countless others–tried to open in ways that we cannot even process quite yet. Word Becomes Flesh is a great title for a performance. But, it’s also a disclaimer: MARC BAMUTHI JOSEPH CANNOT SEPARATE HIGH AND LOW ART, HIP-HOP AND THE NEED FOR BROWN FOLKS TO LIVE SUSTAINABLE LIVES. His word is flesh. His body is a conduit. They are symbiotic when the spotlight hits him, and you certainly can’t distinguish his tap dance training from his humiliating impromptu village performance experience in Senegal or his “natural vaginal birthing classes” in the Bay. Yea, he went there. And if you didn’t, you should have, too. Word.
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ABOUT MARC BAMUTHI JOSEPH
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, originally from NYC, is an arts activist currently living in Oakland, California. He is a National Poetry Slam champion, Broadway veteran, featured artist on the past two seasons of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry on HBO and a recipient of 2002 and 2004 National Performance Network Creation commissions. Read more at http://livingwordproject.org/lwp_mbj.html
ABOUT DANCE PLACE
The mission of Dance Place is to transform lives through performing arts and creative education programs that inspire personal growth, professional success, physical wellness and community engagement. Through truly affordable and free programs, Dance Place serves diverse audiences, artists, students, families, adults and children in the greater DC Metropolitan area. Read more at http://www.danceplace.org