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red, black and GREEN: a blues

17 Mar

There are three things that I feel I need to disclose before I can write anything honest about the brilliant and incisive red, black & GREEN: a blues by Marc Bamuthi Joseph/The Living Word Project at the Walker Art Center. 1) I spent the formative years of my childhood living in Egypt, a white boy in a Muslim Arab country where my father taught at a seminary and my mother was the pastor of a church which ran a program called the Joint Relief Ministry, working with mostly black refugees out of Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia to provide healthcare and job training while waiting for visas to other parts of the world. As a part of that post-colonial remnant, I grew up knowing acutely that I was privileged. 2) While on a trip to New York City last summer (ostensibly to see the retrospective Glenn Ligon:AMERICA at the Whitney and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Met) I found out that the funeral of Gil Scott-Heron was taking place uptown. I went. I felt like I had to, in some way. I’ve been sober for four years now, and so the death of a poet from addiction seemed too tragic not to witness. So I went. I felt like an interloper. I left before Kanye West showed up. 3) One of the greatest performances I have ever seen took place on that same stage in the McGuire Theater almost exactly six years ago, Sekou Sundiata’s magnificent, sprawling, post-9/11 exploration the 51st (dream) state. That was a piece of work that stopped me, completely mesmerized by the music, poetry, interviews and dialog, and made me think to myself, “Goddamn, I wish everything was this good.” red, black & GREEN: a blues is, with its personal honesty, poetic drive, sweat, energy and interactivity. It’s so good it makes me feel I have to write personally honest things if only to try and relate to it.

Traci Tolmaire, Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Photo by Bethanie Hines

red, black & GREEN: a blues is loosely structured around the four seasons in four different American cities – summer in Chicago (with a side-trip to the Sudan), autumn in Houston, winter in New York City and spring in Oakland – inspired by stories around Bamuthi’s LIFE is LIVING festival, organized to foster the relationship between arts and environmental justice. The show begins with the audience invited on stage to walk amongst Theaster Gates‘ set as Bamuthi, Gates and their fellow performers – dancer and actor Traci Tolmaire and actor and composer Tommy Shepherd aka Emcee Soulati – sing and recite snippets from the show. Gates’ set is a practical but beautiful piece of work, four segments of a house on castors, cobbled together with care from raw timber, packing crates, astroturf and canvas to convey a the best use of a scarcity of resources. The construction recalls Ralph Lemon’s set for Come Home Charley Patton which was on display as part of the exhibition OPEN-ENDED (the art of engagement) at the Walker in 2004 or more recently, the Chris Larson sculptural and video installation Crush Collision. Even better, the entire set is a musical instrument, with Shepherd’s hypnotic, kinetic compositions drummed and stomped out on the various boards and beams, filling the room, ecstatically accompanying the fluid hip-hop and step dancing that punctuate the show.

Woven throughout these locations are several themes – food and nourishment, addiction and its impact on social fabrics, violence and death, and perhaps most pointed towards what could be considered a generally privileged museum-going audience, the bordering-on-self-righteousness expectations of the environmental movement. It is this vein that the cast mines for the greatest humor. In the opening Chicago segment, Bamuthi skewers the patrons of a raw-food vegan restaurant who “literally pray over tofu for ten minutes,” but don’t get on board with the LIFE is LIVING festival. In New York, trying to get a local “green czar” to sign onto the festival involves a litany of bona fides that make environmentalism a chore we do as opposed to an attitude we embody. “Do you turn off the water when you brush your teeth? Do you bring your re-useable mug to Starbucks? Trick question! Fuck Starbucks!” The list of expectations goes on and on, turning practical advice into oppressive expectation. It is in response to moments like this that Gates, in an opening monolog with the audience still onstage, addresses the work that must be done – that if there are still people who do not have access to the museum and theater, then we are only half-living, the talents and skills of the artists must be in service of some greater, more expansive good. If environmentalism sets itself apart, then the definition of “green” is only half-open, and there is work to be done.

“Energy is complex,” Bamuthi exclaims at one point in response to a jibe that BP’s logo is also green, and the performance does not shy away from complexity, especially when it comes to the nature of sorrow and violence. “The church that you smell in his voice is grief, waiting to perform at a festival of life,” he says about a performer at the LIFE is LIVING festival in Chicago, and then goes on to tell the story of meeting a Sudanese woman whose son has been senselessly killed. “She spits out a seed that will never grow in the desert where she lives” becomes the repeated, piercing refrain, not only challenging the American “recycled narrative of black-on-black violence” but expanding that scope via a trip to the Sudan. In Sudan, Bamuthi experienced racial privilege as the Northern Sudanese called out the Southern Sudanese in their party as inferior, an attitude borne out in the ongoing violence in both North Sudan and South Sudan. This violence shifts the Civil Rights paradigm of “us versus them” racial politics, Bamuthi points out and does not offer any simple answers. Life is not simple, people are not monolithic blocks of desires and needs, and privilege and power can be as fluid in a situation as they are entrenched and divisive.

There are two main stories of addiction in red, black & GREEN: a blues and the first is uplifting. In telling the story of “The Flower Man” in Houston, Tolmaire recreates the monolog of an alcoholic man, who through a detox vision of a tower of found objects, asks God to get clean so that he can build that tower, and does. If it sounds corny, the notion expressed – “I believe in visions and dreams” and “I believe that one mans junk is another man’s treasure” – can and should be equally applied to art, to move it past the sanctuary of the institution and into the necessity of living, the reason to do so. The second is a eulogy for Scott-Heron via the story of a homeless heroin addict in Harlem using newspapers to try and line his shoes in the middle of winter, and dying in the street. The existential cry of “I’m so lonely in the ever-changing sameness of this high,” is as true for the heroin fix as it is for other modern addictions – the ease of internet activism, of familiar narratives, of entrenched power systems. Reading through ColorLines‘ lacerating criticism of the Invisible Children Kony 2012 campaign, “Kony 2012’s Success Shows There’s Big Money Attached to White Saviors“, (recent bizarre turns not-withstanding) gives some insight into that level of addiction. Turning it back around to Scott-Heron, “we watched him die,” the cast proclaims in the end, and if you’ve read Alec Wilkinson’s rending profile of Scott-Heron in The New Yorker, you know that’s true.

One of the first questions asked in the performance, is “What does healing have to do with social justice?” Everything, it seems. In Houston, Tolmaire enacts a character who runs an urban farm, providing meals in return for sweat equity. She notes that if you can’t walk or bike to any fresh food, you are experiencing “food insecurity” and that phrase brought out a couple titters from the audience, which quickly died as the seriousness of that thought sunk in – here are some Minnesota-specific statistics. Food also came back around in the final segment set in Oakland. In trying to explain the importance of the Black Panther movement to his son, Bamuthi notes that since Obama is the first president his son will remember, “[i]t’s hard to contextualize Huey P. Newton when the current face of imperialism is brown and handsome.” This is the same Oakland, of course, which had particularly brutal crackdowns against the Occupy protests, and in the context of that violence and the histories of violence, the Panthers are important because they practiced the most basic form of community-building: they fed people and offered them healthcare. That is still a radical notion, and red, black & GREEN: a blues challenges us to acknowledge that.

Tommy Shepherd aka Emcee Soulati, Theaster Gates, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Traci Tolmaire. Photo by Bethanie Hines

If Charles Bukowski once said “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence,” Bamuthi and the Living Word Project are full of the most intelligent and confident people, wrestling with complexity and inviting us in. Not just in the theater or in the museum, but in life, in the communities that we are trying to build and understand. After the performance the audience was invited back onstage to engage with the cast and many went down, including a white man who had come with young black boy. After they both thanked Gates for the performance and after talking to the boy for a minute, Gates picked up an unfinished clay pot that had been used as a prop and handed it to him to keep, along with instructions on how to make sure it kept from cracking. The boys eyes lit up and as he walked away, Gates reached over to pull a loose, long strand of someone else’s hair off the boys head in a smooth movement of benediction and care. That’s the show, that’s the life of it.

The set is on display today and there is one show left tonight. LIFE is LIVING, the festival, is in planning to come to the Twin Cities. These are good reasons to be hopeful, thankful. And so, after stuttering out a “thank you” to the cast, I left the Walker, got on my bike to ride down Lyndale in the unseasonable March warmth, past the Ecopolitan, the guy with the re-usable grocery bag running for the bus, the white kid in a dashiki outside of a cowboy bar, past the lights and cars and people standing, smoking and laughing together outside, to my house in South Minneapolis with the garden in the back, waiting to be planted, thinking indeed, this is life, and it is, with help from all of us, living.

Introducing Life is Living :: Oakland, CA from MVMT on Vimeo.

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