Marc Bamuthi Joseph, best known as a spoken word artist, and his collaborators, raised questions and gave many ideas for discussion through a multi-layered, multi-sensory performance at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater called red, black, and GREEN: a blues (rbGb). The performance, developed through collaboration among the artists was creative, nuanced, hard-hitting, collaborative, and thought-provoking.
The ensemble: Joseph, Traci Tolmaire, Tommy Shepherd aka Emcee Soulati, and Yaw, under the direction of Michael John Garces, combined spoken word mostly in the form of poetry, dance, percussion, gestural language, song, other vocalization, and documentary films to raise questions about black culture, the black do-gooder elite, small working projects and the absurdity of outsiders coming into poor communities to encourage resident blacks to go green. Near the end of the evening, Joseph proclaimed that, “Green (money) goes fast but land lasts.”
All of the expressions used provided layered depth without being overwhelming. At any one time, there might a combination of spoken word, dance, percussion, gestural language, and documentary film. One of the wonders of the performance was the maintenance of a point of focus; other forms of expression supported whomever had the point of focus. Sound design and production management by Gregory T. Kuhn, lighting design by James Clotfelter, and lighting and stage management by Mathew E. Jones crafted this exemplary feat.
Another main support of the performance was Theaster Gates’ set concept, design, and installation. The set was made of four large segments, each of which utilized all four sides. Moved by the actors, the sets were easily combined to give views of the inside and outside of a house, staggered video documentary screens, portraying a southern community, tough neighborhoods in New York and the relative peace of a reimagined and renovated housing block in Houston, among others. Four seasons in four cities-summer in Chicago, fall in Houston, winter in Harlem, and spring in Oakland was an organizing structure though the seasons and locations segued rather than abruptly changed.
Music by Tommy Shepherd aka Emcee Soulati ranged from ballads and explanatory stories in song, often accompanied by dancing and gestural language, to resentment and protest with syncopated percussion using both foot stamping and the beating of metal objects against each other.
Connection with the audience began with an invitation to move onto the stage as they entered the theater. Those accepting the offer spend the first 20 minutes on set, during which ensemble members, using all of the media at their disposal, drew an initial picture of life in a black community in the rural south with the closeness of the community symbolized by the cutting and distribution of watermelon to cast and participating audience members alike. The sets were moved from a position exposing the outside of living spaces to the interior of a house, with set pieces placed far enough apart the the audience could wander within and without.
Other collaborators in this performance piece included the David Szlasa (media design), Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi (documentary films), Bethanie Hines (photography), Stacey Printz (choreography) and Mai-Lei Pecorari (costume design). The integration of all aspects of the performance piece would not have been possible without their contributions.
Though part of The Kennedy Center’s One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide program, in collaboration with Hi-ARTS/Hip-Hop Theater Festival, red, black and GREEN, a blues (rbGb) contained only a snippet of hip-hop It focused more on Black cultural life and dilemmas in many environments. Goals of Joseph’s performance art and The Living Word Project is to raise difficult questions, spark discussion, and bring local organizations together.
The conversation began after the performance, not with a Q&A session but with an invitation to interested audience members to return to the set and ask questions of any of the ensemble members. Every cast member I spoke with emphasized the performance piece being a collaborative effort, organically growing out of ideas formulated and discussion amongst a multitude of artists and community members.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.