performance work by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
presented by the Kennedy Center
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Performer and personal narrative poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph is getting well earned, rave reviews for his latest expression, the break/s which infuses hip hop culture into his personal stories of identity, filled with whispers of history and whiffs of political insights, all while breaking down the boundaries of theater, dance, and film.
Joseph is the ultimate boundary buster seeing how he can bust a move while totally immersed in the writings of literary masters and philosophical giants. His exquisite articulations of his emotional yearnings and self-discovery are matched by fluid and graceful movements that defy gravity. At times he’s so quietly smooth that he seems suspended in space, then in sudden bursts of energy he propels into rapid fire motions, spiraling, gesturing, slicing the air, fracturing the time space continuum, a breathless and mysterious wanderer intent on his journey of self discovery and artistic expression.
Every aspect of his life is open to scrutiny and he unselfishly spares none of the details. In an earlier work, Scourge several years ago, along with expounding on his Haitian background, he explored his intimate relationships in unflinching detail, articulating the passion of flaming hot romantic love, the cool down, the meltdown and ultimate break-up, concluding with the most heartbreaking account of unwed fatherhood I have witnessed to this day. Aspects of this part of his life journey are grafted into his current piece, the break/s, where he shares yearning to be with his daughter while traveling on the road and defying cultural expectations with his Asian girlfriend. She too seeks his loving commitment but again he hesitates, is so conscientious of their union that he limits their public appearances and offers her an engagement ring of silence and a big rock of maybe.
the break/s continues his explorations with journal entries, including a dreamy sequence with Prince describing DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, along with more insightful international excursions, priceless snippets accompanied by video clips and interviews. Footage of South Africans shows the hip hop influence on ordinary people – male and female, young and old – a reminder of how dance and movement are intimate and immediate expressions of the culture. He felt at home and at ease with the hip hop artists in Bosnia of all places, surrounded by the age old strifes of civil war and inhumanity which felt surprisingly familiar to his age-old soul. His trip to Cuba reminded him of the pervasive African influence in the land, just sixty ocean miles from his own native Haiti where he was first recognized by the elders as having a griot-like spirit. In a trip to a club in Japan, he expected to be rushed and adored as an authentic and regal prince of hip hop, only to be ignored and as anonymous as anybody else in the crowd, feeling like the wrong guy at the right party -again – a humorous rude awakening.
Joseph works wonders with his collaborators, musicians and sound mixers DJ Excess and Tommy Shepherd aka Soulati with exquisitely timed cues, a reminder that no matter how free-flowing the work feels, like master improv gone wild, it’s all carefully timed orchestrated and directed, by Michael John Garces. The work also blends beautifully with documentary footage and projected images by filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi and lighting and co-set design by James Clotfelter who uses only a basic and rudimentary lighting bar and backdrop, while periodically projecting a vinyl record on the floor.
Words are inadequate in defining Joseph and his high wire, death defying act of artistic self-expression. In a packed house of hundreds of young people used to immediate media explosions of continual “feed me, entertain me,” sound-bites, some of his ethereal moments and literary references, and looping back to his refrain of describing life “within the breaks,” and “starting at the middle,” resulted in some loud rustling and twitters and even whispered derisive responses. By the end of the show, however, he had them all mesmerized, transfixed, hushed in absolute and reverent silence. At times the entire audience seemed to be in a collective held breath. That’s the true power of this artist, who sometimes seems as surreal as a brother from another planet while clearly and immediately anchored in this time and dimension showing us new ways of seeing, being, and believing, daring us to stay awake instead of sleepwalking through life. Catch him when you can–he is not to be missed.
All performances have sold out. Click here to see an excerpt from the show.
Running Time: 1:30, no intermission
When: Extremely limited run, September 19-20, 730 pm – Unfortunately sold out.
Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC