Hey, put down your guns! I’m not talking about hand-carrying, capitalist-and-NRA-endorsed devices you can buy on DC streets. I’m talking about the weapons of words we use to hate on each other and heap hate on ourselves. I’m here to tell you Word Becomes Flesh, a play not just for blacks, has returned and though it’s played by a theatrical brotherhood of five men, it is not just about and for men. It’s a play to help us understand each other better. It’s a play to help us heal. (And damn, it’s clear we all need a lot of healing.) It’s a play we should all see, and it’s a play we need to take our sons to see.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Word Becomes Flesh made a revelatory debut here in DC at the 2010 Hip Hop Festival. In 2016, Theater Alliance paired it with for colored girls… by Ntozake Shange in a kind of ‘he said she said’ illumination of both sides. I never saw the shows.
Billed as a hip-hop genre show, maybe I thought I knew what it was about. Or maybe Anacostia Playhouse felt too far away. Aren’t there a lot of sorry-ass excuses we make for not taking a chance on theater?
The narrative, shared by five actors, is an extended letter from a young Black man to his son. It’s told in a series of flashback “poems” with movement and gesticulations, sometimes abstract dance, some illustrative of social interactions that describe the world of fear and other pressures in which the man lives. The poems spilling out to us over the course of an hour become chapters in the man’s growing consciousness –what it means to be a son, what it means to be a father, what it means to be black in today’s world.
Five men lying prone on a floor begin to breathe together. The sound of their air intake and exhalation sounds like the ocean, and as the bodies begin to undulate and roll, they become some single-celled organism. Then the men are encircling one of them who bursts up out of their arms like a bird in a nest, like a creature being born. Arms pull on one another in a snaky line. A body is lifted and passed through the air in something like a trust exercise. Five men are running, running in slow motion, running in place. No one is getting anywhere.
These means may be familiar to actors in training or working in experimental theater. What they’re saying with these means is startling.
“Every day begins with a black man on the run. Early to rise, early to run just in case the polices come.”
The play is revelatory in its honesty.
What seems, in certain moments, to be a kind of rhyming, strutting, popping, and posing line-up of five guys looking urban cool quickly transcends its genre.
Yes, you see the men putting on acts of being tough, approaching women like they have a right to look right through them, wanting sex and wanting it fast. Then you learn the pressure they are under to put on that kind of show. The performers bare themselves to give you the scared and twisted-up boys inside.
You learn about the boy-man who has no father figure, because his father figure ran. Just like he wants to run when he hears his girlfriend is pregnant. And she isn’t even “the one.” And you hear about his anger at both father and woman, and even the unborn child.
The actors – Louis E. Davis, Chris Lane, Clayton Pelham Jr., Gary Perkins III, and Justin Weaks – all five of them are tight, brilliant each in their own way, and are extensions of each other physically and emotionally.
Periodically, they pound their chests in a double-rhythm, establishing a common heartbeat. Heartbeat becomes the beat of the next section. But heart pounding is also a brotherhood ‘amen,’ a promissory salute that they are going to carry each other through this and us along with them, and that they’ll get us there.
I’m not going to weigh in on this actor or that one. I know blood-made theater when I see it; it’s going to jinx them. They are one. This is what ensemble means.
Oh, and we’re laughing with them because they are born imitators and deliver us some dead-on characters. Men at a club. Men on a street corner. Men running from life. Misogynistic rap and hip-hop stars. And especially women: the daughter with attitude, the do-good birth class instructor. Five men on their backs in a birthing class? You gotta see this.
And then we’re weeping with them.
Word Becomes Flesh
closes October 8, 2017
Details and tickets
Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s play is brilliant, taking a popular form and breaking it open like an egg to see the golden color inside and then flying us to the moon to look back on who we are and how we came from the stars and how we’re still dreaming starrily no matter the scars and ugliness we’ve received or the great divides by which we’ve lived and been separated for so long.
Director Psalmayene24 and Choreographer Tony Thomas have worked together to create something both quirky and deeply profound. The awards and recognition they have received are richly deserved.
I hope this play can tour and be seen by everyone in this country. I would wish the section on racism, funny and hotly true, could be performed on Capitol Hill, as voices to power. I hope young people will get to experience this. Word Becomes Flesh embodies what we’re all looking for: hope.
Theater Alliance’s Word Becomes Flesh. Written by Marc Bamuthi. Directed by Psalmayenne 24. Choreography by Tony Thomas II. Scenic Design by Ethan Sinnott. Lightin Design by William K. D’Eugenio. Costume design by Marci Rodgers. Sound Design and Original Composition by Nick tha 1da. With Louis E. Davis, Chris Lane, Clayton Pelham Jr., Gary L. Perkins III, and Justin Weaks. Produced by Theater Alliance . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.