Mark Bamuthi Joseph photo by Arthur Fink
When Michael Collins, an Irish freedom fighter, was negotiating with British representatives Winston Churchill and Lloyd George on the treaty that would end British occupation of Ireland he exclaimed, "How can you argue with someone who needs to draw lines and circles to explain his position?" His point was simple. For him clear verbalizing was the most effective means of communication. Drawing lines and circles interfered with the rhythm of speech and flow of thought. In these negotiations verbally spinning out a formed argument was pitched against a conceptual over-analytical and static communication. For Collins, if you needed to draw lines and circles you didn't have a clear argument.
It's this verbal essence that is at the heart of the artistry Marc Bamuthi Joseph. A hip-hop poet and dancer he represents the exact kind of distilled utterances – both verbal and physical – that are eloquently and forcefully expressive. In a work like Word Becomes Flesh, a solo of "performed letters" to his unborn son that documents nine months of pregnancy, there is nothing superfluous. It is lean in its material and succinct in its delivery.
If we accept the view that the colonized are the colonizer's unconscious then we reach a further similarity between Collins' complaint about the British and Bamuthi's cultural examination. In Scourge, Bamuthi, a first-generation Haitian, returns to questions around preservation of his culture and identity within the United States. The relationship between Haiti and the US mightn't be that of colonized and colonizer, but Bamuthi argues that US behavior towards other smaller nations is similar to that of a colonizer. He claims that while within the United States any examination of other cultures is somewhat of a risk, "In the sense that we are collectively the most aloof and indifferent nation when it comes to other cultures and countries, even those that are in our back yard." Bringing a work like Scourge into independent theaters forces audiences to reach towards unfamiliar territory. Bamuthi wants to find those places of conceptual and experiential intersection where an audience that knows nothing about Haiti can find themselves in the work, but more importantly, find the work in themselves. The drawn lines and circles could be the semiology of the modern America, the visual chaos at odds with the passionate eloquence of his voice, explaining his position and positioning his explanation as to how he is who he is where he is.
Outside the dance studio Bamuthi witnesses his young son becoming distanced from a culture Bathumi took for granted. For him this raises questions about the legacy of mythology, folklore, food, language, as well as historical factors and cultural realities that he had always taken for granted. When he found he wasn't equipped with all of the answers his reaction was not only to do the research, but to answer those questions using the traditional methods of communication in Haiti. Poems, songs, hand games, hopscotch games, proverbs are some of the many ways his cultural legacy was passed to him and he has sought to re-imagine these within the context of hip-hop and hip-hop culture, as exemplified in Scourge.
As a child, Bamuthi's family regularly traveled to Haiti and his affinity with the country was first hand. Not for him the misty-eyed reminiscences of the nostalgic diaspora nor the historic shedding and reinvention that can follow emigration. While his son remained at the core of the questioning that took place during the creation of Scourge, Bamuthi has also looked towards cousins in his family who he sees grow more African-American than Haitian-American. Revisiting and reasserting the ways that effectively taught him about Haiti has equipped him with instruments to educate and also to articulate a legacy and these questions to others. And although Scourge examines Haiti it gives modern audiences a blueprint to (re)construct their culture. We all may want to reconnect with our last name or skin color, but often don't have the tools to do so.
All of these elements come together as a ritual in Scourge. Bamuthi's artistic credo is rooted in the facilitation of ritual, not just onstage but throughout the theater. For him audiences aren't passive witnesses but participants in a collective act. Theater director, Anne Bogart says that to observe is to disturb – as in quantum physics the act of observation alters the thing observed. Similarly for Bamuthi "to observe" is not a passive verb. He doesn't believe in art for arts sake, but is fascinated with provoking enquiry, and these provoked questions aren't just an isolated experienced onstage. Scourge sets out to actively include the audience in a collective aesthetic, in what Bamuthi calls "hip-hop as folklore". It is of the body, built on rhythm and verse, and spoken in language and through the body.
The achievement of Scourge lies in its ability to retain the essence of Bamuthi's solos, in spite of an increased cast and creative team. The design elements are not drawn lines and circles; they don't plug gaps in his argument or explain what his voice or movement can't express. Rather they come from the same voice, a collective choir of voices that coalesce into an essential utterance.
This alchemy cannot be created in the rehearsal studio. It takes the performing in the moment to discover the collective process and tonight's performance is the third – and according to Bamuthi the strongest - incarnation of Scourge. Created in six cities and three countries, it took twenty months to find its cohesive voice. Blending the elements and letting each voice – design, music, text, movement – speak clearly and cogently has been achieved through performing and tweaking. And this happens on a nightly basis. These performers have known each other and been around each other at seminal moments of each other's lives and have an ability to improvise not with material but in the space around the spirit of the work. The content is set, so freedom lies in nurturing those special places in the dialectic between the energies and finding that magical place where the emotional resonance between performers and audience hums. In this moment, ritual is happening, questions are being asked, there is provocation there and temperatures are rising and together we take part in a process of collective engagement, investment and transformation.
© Michael Seaver 2006