Show information: “red, black and GREEN: a blues” takes place at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Performances are at 7:30pm on October 20, 21, and 22. For more information, visit http://ybca.org/marc-bamuthi-josephthe-living-word-project
“red, black & GREEN: a blues,” by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, is a performance that explores identity and colors, politics and participation, and there’s probably no one better equipped than Bamuthi to create this work. He’s a community organizer, formidably talented artist, and co-founder of Life is Living, described in his biography as “a national series of one-day festivals designed to activate under-resourced parks and affirm peaceful urban life through hip hop arts and focused environmental action.”
For “red, black & GREEN: a blues” Bamuthi collaborated with director Michael John Garcés, set/installation designer Theaster Gates, and a team of others who contributed – visually and acoustically — to the production’s seamless grace and elegance. But it’s the stellar contributions of the cast of four (Bamuthi, Gates, Traci Tolmaire, and Tommy Shepherd a.k.a. Emcee Soulati) who turn the performance into a riveting commentary about how people have made abandoned parks into places of possibility. “red, black & GREEN: a blues” inspires each of us to look at the impact of our decisions. Anecdotes range from the story of Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses to an explanation of a Tupac documentary that Bamuthi gives his 9-year old son. Each scene sparks consideration of the fertile tension between history and theater, a chance to see again people, relationships, scenarios and ways in which meaning can be transformed through their retelling.
“red, black & GREEN: a blues” defies easy synopsis: it’s not only multi-disciplinary, but also multi-directional, encompassing past and current events. Tethered to locations where Life is Living takes place -– Chicago, Houston, New York, and Oakland – the performance use spoken word, rhythms, music, and dance to bring to life different people and encounters. The set by Gates is assembled and dissembled by the cast to provide different environments.
Beginning with an interactive first section that invites us to wander on the stage and get close to the set (this lasts about a half-hour), the cast is onstage for the entire production. The second section takes places in a proscenium-style arrangement with the four artists onstage.
After 90 minutes, I left the theater wondering if I had ever seen a production that so deeply honored people’s stories, interactions, hopes, obstacles, grief, and potential. “red, black & GREEN: a blues” is both affirmation and catalyst, a testament to unwavering commitment and creativity and a form of theater that triggers questions about if/how we consider the well-being of one another.
In a program essay by Berkeley professor Shannon Jackson, Gates is quoted as saying “While I may not be able to change the housing market or the surety of gentrification, I can offer questions within the landscape. To question, not by petitioning or organizing in the activist way, but by building and making good use of things forgotten.” Each decision within the work seems guided by this principle: from the set that appears to be built from discarded materials to the theatrical techniques that are created in order to engage audiences differently, more effectively.
The first section establishes both intimacy and responsibility. We are free to choose which actor or parts of the set we wish to observe, or to step back and see how the movement of the walls transforms the stage from the façade of a house to its interior spaces. The performers’ voices and rhythms create a glue that unites their presence, even when they’re not visible to one another. Bamuthi offers us slices of watermelon. I hear Gates before I see him sitting on a front porch; he is singing – gorgeously.
Initially compacted like a cube, suggesting a shotgun house, the walls appear worn, dilapidated, full of stories. As they separate, the audience finds itself in the midst of an interior and the sensation of being intimately involved with a situation becomes a through-line of the performance.
This approach to theater is not about complacently watching, but insists on interaction and consideration. At one point Bamuthi speaks about “practice as belief,” advocating for artists to dedicate themselves to values that connect with life through architecture, sculpture, dance, theater.
During the second part of the performance, words and images intertwine. Traci Tolmaire captivates as she morphs into different characters: a woman who oversees a community garden or a guy known as “the flower man.” The cast is phenomenally multitalented: singing, dancing, and speaking with conviction. Tommy Shepherd provides acoustic textures that complement the scenes, making rhythms on the surfaces of the set, beat-boxing, and embodying characters.
The production’s details and transitions are extraordinary: television screens built into the set provide images that enrich the stories being told. During one scene Gates’ profile is visible through a window, a glimpse of quiet perseverance. When the stories shift to New York City, the back wall becomes the interior view of a subway station. The design team included media designer David Szlasa, lighting designer James Clotfelter, choreographer Stacey Printz, composer Tommy Shepherd, documentary filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, costume designer Mai-Lei Pecorrai, and sound designer Gregory Kuhn.
A day after the show, certain lines still reverberate: “it’s a trick question” referring to whether or not to bring a mug to Starbucks (why would any environmentally concerned individual be in Starbucks?) or “the paradox of cultivating something you will never see” or “so culturally immune to our long slow suicide” that encapsulates our present condition.
But it’s the last line that resonates most deeply: “If you look real close…”
What might we see? How would we respond? What could change?