- red, black, & GREEN: a blues by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Through a mesmerizing hybridization of hip-hop aesthetics, dance, spoken word, visual art, rhythm, song, theatre, and film, red, black, & GREEN: a blues offered a powerful, ecologically engaged performance that built a personalized and emotional connection among issues of survival, urban wastelands, violence, food scarcity, poverty, homelessness, toxic dumping, and intergenerational health. Marc Bamuthi Joseph created and performed red, black, & GREEN in collaboration with visual artist/set designer Theaster Gates, as well as actor/dancer Traci Tolmaire, drummer/beat-boxer/turntablist Tommy Shepherd (aka Emcee Soulati), and vocalist Yaw. Commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, this immersive production has collaborated with audiences in San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, New York, Boston, and Seattle, among other cities, to build a new vision of sustainability, with additional performances scheduled into 2014.
Before the conception of red, black, & GREEN, Bamuthi worked with the Youth Speaks organization to mount a series of Life is Living festivals in public parks in Oakland, New York, Houston, and Harlem promoting environmental awareness in under-resourced urban neighborhoods. Festival participants taught him that the concept of “going green” is too limiting for many urban citizens. Bamuthi, together with community members, began to examine the broader question of “what sustains life” in their communities. In red, black, & GREEN, Bamuthi and his collaborators poetically wove together collective input from the Life is Living festivals, examining the impact of urbanization on the natural environment and urban citizens, and the determining effects of global, national, and local economic and cultural forces in urban centers. Bamuthi and his collaborators expanded the idea of sustainability itself into a more holistic intersection of diverse community and environmental factors.
Bamuthi uses an exploration of performance, and eco-performance in particular, to delve further into this expanded concept of sustainability. Collaborative and immersive in every stage of its conception, the performance itself is a creative eco-system that models thoughtful reinventions of what sustenance really means, and encourages audience members to collectively re-envision this new model of sustainability. Bamuthi invites the audience to interact within a set that opens and moves as an energetic organism, bringing new life to stories gathered at the festivals.
To this end, red, black, & GREEN engaged audience members as collaborators in the storytelling process, activating performance aesthetics within the social realm. In the first of the three sections of the performance, titled the colored museum (a reference to George C. Wolfe’s canonical play), all the audience members entered directly onto the stage, where we peered into the windows of a small, cube-like, weather-beaten house as the performers sang and talked within. Slowly, the actors pulled and pushed apart the cube, splitting it into four separate modules. We found ourselves both inside and outside four separate houses surrounded by the performers, stories, and music. The entire set became a musical instrument itself, Soulati’s kinetic compositions drummed and stomped and danced on boards, beams, walls, and steel poles. Yaw rapped from the roof of a shack while Bamuthi stood at an open windowsill chunking through a watermelon with a knife. Tolmaire picked up a slice, sang, danced, and offered a piece of watermelon to an audience member. In the third and final section, titled back talk, Bamuthi further blurred the boundaries between performer and viewer by inviting the audience back onto the stage for conversations and food. The intimacy we felt with the stories and with each other evoked a powerful sense of personal responsibility that jump-started post-show conversations [End Page 574]
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about environmental justice, urban citizenship, and finding harmonious relationships with the land and with one another.
In the second...