“Welcome to the spoken world.” Thus begins a one of a kind performance piece piece by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, an artist, poet, dancer and activist named by the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship as one of the 50 greatest living artists. He created this piece originally as a one-man show 10 years ago as part of the Living Word Project, the resident theater company of Youth Speaks, which organizes the National Youth Poetry Slam. This has been restaged as part of the National Endowment for the Art’s 25thAnniversary Re-creation Initiative, this time as a five-man piece. Atlas Performing Arts Center and Theater Alliance partnered to bring this show to DC.
The story is simplicity itself. A man gets a woman pregnant and tries to prepare himself over the 9 months before the birth. Each performer has written a piece for the play of his own experiences with his father or becoming a father and they weave seamlessly between wordless dances and Bamuthi’s pieces. The opening night audience was diverse and multi-generational and quickly got into the action clapping and snapping.
The performers are Dahlak Brathwaite, Daveed Diggs, Khalil Anthony, Michael Wayne Turner III, and B. Yung. They are actors, hip-hop artists, rappers, spoken word experts, poets, and dancers. Some have greater skill in one area or another, but they are all strong, fearless performers, given the vulnerability of poetry coupled with the intensely personal and potentially explosive subject.
In the tradition of the best art, they lay bare what everyone understands but no one speaks. Racism, gun violence, absent fathers, abortion, marriage, and gender are all faced, but not gratuitously and not for politics, rather as the lived experience of each performer. Bamuthi also does not shy away from the larger issues and updated the play for events of today; mentioning Chris Brown at one point or at another saying, “They fired 10,000 teachers and built more jails.”
DJ Dion Reiner-Guzman creates the soundtrack onstage and a fun part of the show happens before it even starts hearing him at work. Turner assisted the most with the choreography of the piece. The dancing is physical and almost violent – filled with sprinting and pushups and sharp moves.
Haldun Morgan designs the lighting and since the stage is bare but for the DJ’s stand at the back and all of the dancers are barefoot and dressed in simple black, his design does most of the visual work, saturating the white backdrop with primary colors and spotlighting each performer. It is very much a part of the piece as sometimes a performer leaps into the dark only to find another spotlight.
The play begins with an energetic piece that has each performer addressing “heartbeat,” his unborn child and then his own father between bouts of energetic dancing. The play slows down as a more traditional narrative begins and the man (played by each performer in turn) describes meeting a woman, finding out she’s pregnant, finding out it’s a boy, debating marriage, debating abortion, and debating regret. At one point, the man says, “If everyone who had children was good and ready when they did, there’d be three people on this planet.”
Those solos are interspersed with more group dances and group poetry. There are two strong pieces at the beginning detailing the woman’s choice of abortion or having the child and another about the man’s choice of whether to stay or go. I’d never thought about it in those terms. The dance of the actual birth itself is an incredible piece where the only sound onstage is the men breathing. Strangely, that has become a man’s main job during birth. Other pieces address the wider world, for instance in one about the hip-hop generation they bemoan “one night stands by one hit wonders” and what those artists teach about women.
The strongest piece of the night and one of the most amazing pieces of performance art probably will see in my life was called “N***** Mentality,” basically a description of the birth of the n-word. The performers began the piece dancing like animals morphing slowly into men – wearing suits or shooting hoops and more – as they trace a family tree through greed and hatred that birth ignorance and self-hatred and slavery and on through the generations. The final frozen image of that piece will haunt me for a very long time.
Above and beyond the fearless presentation, the words and rhymes themselves are awesome – in the literal sense of the word – they inspire awe. An ultrasound is described as “an image of blue sound.” Each artist is a powerful performer in their own right and Bamuthi really may turn out to be one of the greats of this age. What he does with words and actors is breathtaking, but history aside, this is just a really good, really powerful play done by very talented performers.
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.
Word Becomes Flesh plays through tomorrow – March 24, 2013 at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.