Some artists you can trust to bring their artistry to new heights, and that no matter what they do, it will be an electrifying and exuberant experience. Marc Bamuthi Joseph is one of those artists. Featured as part The Kennedy Center’s Collaboration with the Hi-ARTS/Hip-Hop Theater Festival, Joseph’s red, black & GREEN: a blues serves up an eclectic mix of performance art and spoken word with a hip hop flair.
In the spirit of inclusivity perhaps representing community involvement, the audience is invited onstage to join the performing ensemble for the first 15 minutes, milling around, watching, observing, becoming part of the performance for those who remained seated. They walk through the set designed by Chicago artist Theaster Gates, which consists of four large rolling segments that fit together like a large, jagged rubic, complete with row-house looking rooms, made from repurposed material, while performers are scattered in separate sections, singing, moving, responding to the beat.
At one point, the sections were rolled to the outer edges of the set creating a performance space in the center. Once the audience returned to their seats and the lights darkened, a singer known as “Yaw” with the clearest, resonating baritone intoned a gospel invocation, setting the tone for the spirit of the ancestors to join in the message. That spiritual intonation underscored the entire production, and was reinforced when Joaeph emerged with several basins and water, symbols of libation.
And then come the messages – they sneak up on you through the ebb and flow of the poetry and dance, and stomping beats that would pop up out of nowhere. A master new-age griot with a wicked down beat, Joseph climbs along the set to perch on top with rapid fire reflections about life. He is superbly supported by the rest of the ensemble in song and movement. Traci Tolmaire has a clear distinctive voice along with drop-down, smooth hip swiveling hinges.
Joseph’s periodic reference to a Life is Living project refers to a festival he and others initiated in Oakland with underserved communities, environmental activists and fellow artists. This current production pieces together seemingly disconnected constructs that flow in a mesmerizing tantric stream of ideology steeped in cultural awareness. Who else but Marc B. could mix the savage life and death issues of the streets with global warming and recycling? His rhythms and rhymes provoke questions of what sustains life, while he mourns the staggering youth-instigated death toll of mindless violence, asking ‘what will grow here?’ His mind-boggling cultural insights are reflected in lyrics like—I feel like tagging, somebody’s got to believe, and observations from the center of my psychological map. The piece explores the impact of the Life is Living project’s expansion to Houston, Chicago, then Harlem in New York, each representing a season with its own local verve, vibe and spin.
I’ve seen both of his previous works— Word Becomes Flesh where Joseph brings warmth and humanity to the often silent voices of unexpected unwed fathers, and Scourge about his Haitian-American roots and identity. The earlier works were more personal and had a biting, soul-searing impact. In all, Marc B Joseph is constantly on the prowl in his artistic expressions of social consciousness, adapting material from his experiential perch, and making magical moments. He has a following who appreciate his multifaceted mastery of movement and dance, having understudied Savion Glover in The Tap Dance Kid, excelled in slam poetry, and is a gifted story teller—truly one of a kind.
Up next is a hip hop opera which, if his previous works are any indication, should not be missed.
red, black & GREEN: a blues was performed April 4 and 5, 2014 at The Kennedy Center.
. Created and Performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the Living Word Project . Directed by Michael John Garcés . Part of: Hip Hop Culture Worldwide One Mic and the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson