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Crime and Punishment at the Soap Factory

12 Apr


There’s an old Borscht Belt joke that has two patrons at a restaurant complaining about the food. “The food here is so terrible,” the first exclaims. “Yes,” agrees the second, “and the portions are so small!”

Live Action Set’s Crime and Punishment feels very much in that vein, including the “terrible” part – as in, full of or causing terror. The narrative of Dostoyevsky disappears into installation of the set in the Soap Factory, you could be a scholar of Russian literature and come away with no idea of what happens in the book itself. But the tone – pre-Dickensian Russian poverty, the debauchery and depravity of desperation, is all-encompassing and inescapable. The design of the show is audaciously engrossing, a triumph of minutiae and disorienting surprise that has antecedents more in the work of Gregor Schneider and Ed Kienholz than traditional theater design. There are diaries to discover, phones that ring and pass on furtive, horror-filled messages, peepholes that open up new worlds, not necessarily more pleasant or enticing than the one at hand.

Into this built horror are thrown almost two dozen performers, characters seeking escape and and respite, domineering control, drink, and maybe even love. There are hookers and hawkers, landladys and repo men, cops and villains, ingenues and and the shadow of death. You can follow any of them singularly, or bounce between characters, but the strength of Crime and Punishment is in the moments of pure surprise – an achingly sweet and powerfully lithe dance between a Cossack and his lover, the moment of holding all tension before an axe is brought down, being pulled aside by a character and told of a dream where you were together.

Depending on how you move through the space you may experience any or none of this, and that is the second part of the joke. At an hour’s run time, a visit to the Soap Factory basement barely scratches the surface of what it is or what it could be. When the performers came through, banging on trash can lids and herding people together, my first hope was that here was the use of the space to bring people together for a shared moment to create something together that could then be diffused back into the playing space. But no, they were coming through to clear us out, which was as terrible and jolting as anything that had been a part of the show.

EX by Skewed Visions

26 Oct

If you’ve been through the collection of the Walker Art Center looking for the brightest and flashiest pieces, you would have walked right past Robert Gober’s sculpture, Untitled Door and Door Frame. An ordinary, white painted door frame opens up into a small, fluorescent-lit room, where the companion piece, the door itself, leans up against the back wall. You would walk past and miss it, but it’s worth stepping in to. The combination of the light, the white door on the white wall, the milky translucence of the paint, all lend themselves to a ghostly, slightly ethereal feeling, but the smallness of the room, the buzz of the closeness of your body with others make it a visceral moment.


This is a similar experience to EX, the new work by Charles Campbell produced by Skewed Visions at the California Building. EX is a quiet and meditative work, but one filled with palpable physicality, humanity and significance. The audience is seated in the center of the raw studio space, while the performers – Annie Enneking, Megan Mayer, Billy Mullaney and Campbell – move around the room. The props are simple, mundane – door, similar to Gober’s door, an office chair, a coffee table, a couch, picture frames, a strongbox – but become representative presences throughout the show. The sensation of breathing next to people, with the lights up, the performers’ breathes and footfalls, all of these things come together to heighten reality and our own awareness of our living body.

The impetus for EX came from grief. In the course of a year, Campbell lost his mother to Alzheimer’s and his sister to cancer. But with it’s dance sequences, non-linear or narrative structure and visual gags, EX isn’t maudlin or saccharine. Campbell and his collaborators have a history and trust together that lets them take a light touch with heaviness. There is something important, and lovely, that in a work about personal loss, the performers who helped create the show are trusted, long-standing collaborators, a nod to the families that we make for ourselves to see us through life.

The levity of certain moments, the variations on repeated patterns, silence, they all combine to occasional devastating effect. Mayer* carrying Mullaney, thin, with a shaved head in an oversized white T-shirt may be the most tragic thing you see on stage this year. The refrain of “Get. The fuck. Away!” is resonant as a reaction for self preservation, even from ourselves. The dance sequences of punctuated physicality leave questions about what is and out of frame, how tangled up are we in our everyday things, how do we share with others?

On the site for EX, Campbell has written a few notes about the work:

It’s not an epic story of human struggle.
It’s not a political parable for our times.
It’s not about you and your family.
It doesn’t speak from the heart.
It won’t make you feel better about yourself.
It won’t stay long.

The only one I know for sure is true is that it won’t stay long – EX closes November 1. So make some space for yourself to see the show. Take deep breaths, get into the room and hold it for an hour.

*A previous version of this post identified Campbell as the one carrying Mullaney. I spent a lot of time in show thinking about how each performer was channeling both Campbell and his family at various points, so, mission accomplished, I guess.

2014 Stone Arch Bridge Festival Announces Music Lineup

20 May

The Stone Arch Bridge Festival has finally announced their lineup for 2014! Our very own Staciaann continues her streak, booking the festival for the 8th year in a row.

This year features a wide variety of hip-hop, good ol’ fashioned rock n’ roll, folk, jazz, and country, as well as a few things that just don’t fit into any genre. Every year brings an overabundance of talent – which is both awesome and frustrating as there are limited spots for music during this three-day festival. The big shows take place after 7pm on Water Power Park (a really cool place, if you haven’t been) and feature the likes of Mike Munson, Frankie Lee, & The Cactus Blossoms on Friday night, followed up by Greg Grease & Sean Anonymous on Saturday… which leads right into the festivities across the river for Northern Spark. Super excited for that!

Enough waiting… here’s the full lineup!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Cities 97 Stage on Water Power Park

7:00 p.m. Mike Munson
7:30 p.m.Frankie Lee
8:30 p.m. Mike Munson
9:00 p.m.The Cactus Blossoms

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Star Tribune Stage in Father Hennepin Park

1:15 p.m. Sarah Morris
2:15 p.m. Swallows
3:15 p.m. Andra Suchy
4:15 p.m. Mother Banjo
5:15 p.m. Jessica Manning
6:15 p.m. Tortuga!

Cities 97 Stage on Water Power Park

12:00 p.m. Jill.
12:45 p.m. Danami and the Blue
1:45 p.m. Verskotzi
2:45 p.m. Vision the Kid & Tru
3:45 p.m. Step Rockets
4:45 p.m. Two Harbors
5:45 p.m. Taj Raj
6:45 p.m. Unknown Prophets
7:45 p.m. Greg Grease
9:00 p.m. Sean Anonymous

City Pages Stage Under the Central Avenue Bridge

11.15 a.m. Bob & Lynn Dixon
12:15 p.m. David Gerald Sutton
1:15 p.m. Walker Fields
2:15 p.m. Stephanie Says
3:15 p.m. Will Bauermeister
4:15 p.m. Mike Munson
5:15 p.m. Adam Svec
6:15 p.m. Kind Red Spirits

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Star Tribune Stage in Father Hennepin Park

12:15 p.m. Jillian Rae
1:15 p.m. Peter Lochner
2:15 p.m. Steve Noonan
3:15 p.m. Maple & Beech
4:15 p.m. Jake Ilika & the Heavy Set

Cities 97 Stage on Water Power Park

12:oo p.m. Street Hassle
1:00 p.m. Some Pulp
2:05 p.m. Johnny Rey
3:10 p.m. Courtney Yasmineh Band
4:15 p.m. Ruben

City Pages Stage Under the Central Avenue Bridge

12:15 p.m. EMOT
1:15 p.m. Billy Johnson
2:15 p.m. Dan Israel
3:15 p.m. Ben Glaros
4:15 p.m. Paul Seeba


Vision the Kid & Tru


Unknown Prophets

Taj Raj

Taj Raj


Jessica Manning

Jessica Manning

Leav Kickstarter

4 Mar

We’ve written in the past about some Kickstarter campaigns that we’ve liked, supported or given a boost. Usually they’ve been for a musician, a show or something like that, but this time around it’s for a mix of all those things, in a really exciting package. It’s Leav, a new platform for smartphones that ties together music, video and art to the city around us, all in the palm of your hand.

If you live in a city long enough, you’ll invariably build associations to the place and art, whether it’s involuntarily humming the Hold Steady up in the Quarry, a poster that reminds you of a certain show on a certain night with a certain person, or a streetcorner that holds the memory of epic drama. Leav is a location and time-specific app that lets artists share their view of the city and attach new work to it. A dance company can create a video that you can only see at a certain time of day in a certain place, a musician can give you a sonic landscape that matches the cityscape around you. It’s an exciting vision of what technology and art can do together and it’s being built by artists – Andy Voegtline, Erik Martz, Joey Kantor & Bobby Maher – for artists.

Leav launched with a lineup of impressive artists to work provide work for the app – Holly Hansen of Zoo Animal, Chris Koza of Rogue Valley, choreographer and City Pages 2004 Artist of the Year Stuart Pimsler and nationally acclaimed visual artist Kate Casanova – and a new round of artists has just been announced, including man-about-town Andy Sturdevant, dancer Emily Johnson, musician Grant Cutler, and the Roe Family Singers. That’s a whole festival right there, one that we would be proud to use to introduce people to the Twin Cities, and it can all be ours in the palm of our hands.

With a March 8 deadline approaching, the Leav team are about $7,500 short of a $22,000 goal, so 66% there. That may seem like a daunting hill to climb, but Kickstarter’s own numbers show that of projects that reach 60% funding, 98% of those are completely funded. So go on and support Leav, because this is a whole new world for local art.


The Cats Will Play – at the Minnesota State Fair

3 Sep

By: Pat O’Brien

Looking at cat videos on the internet seems at once both amusing and silly. There are famous cats (more of that in a minute), and not-so-famous cats who happened to do something funny once (see: video of the cat licking the turned-on vacuum). Watching these videos alone in your own home (or at least alone-ish) is one thing, but watching them with 13,000 other people who’ve also already seen them is quite another.

The cries of “crazy cat people,” and “you need more to do” have surely been uttered thousands of times before and since August 28th, as the Walker Art Center‘s  2nd Annual Internet Cat Video Festival made national news. This was partially due to one small but gigantic—in internet cat land—happening just before the videos themselves got under way: two of the most famous cats, Grumpy Cat (real name: Tardar Sauce) and Lil Bub were introduced to each other.

When the same meeting occurred on stage, and had the audience not been implored to stay quiet (due to Lil Bub’ fear of loud noises), it stands to reason the decibel level in the crowd would have been deafening. Instead everyone just stood there kind of shocked. “Is this really happening?” and “Oh my God!” could be heard in the area surrounding me and I’m sure somewhere there was the sound of a cute overload meter cracking into a million pieces. The best part about all of this was the utter sincerity. Nobody was there to love it like they “love” Journey or “Diff’rent Strokes” reruns. Attendees were genuinely excited to be together and feel like a part of something that is ultimately flat out fun.

There were some hiccups, as the beginning of the night moved too slowly – and Host Julia Klausner seemed out of place and unfortunately completely misjudged the crowd (she repeatedly tried to inject irony where it wasn’t welcome). The rest of the night moved along quickly and early missteps seemed to be forgiven. The Q&A session with Will Braden (creator of Henri, Le Chat Noir) was informative and he had a few funny answers – but otherwise the first hour of the production could have been completely cut out.

Via Instagram: staciaannmpls

This night at the Fair did prove one thing: watching cats on the internet is not like watching any other animal. There is something oddly magnetic and the impossibility of watching just one, whether you want to or if you’ve paid to. The talk was incessant before the show started and continued afterward. Watching Lil Bub and Grumpy Cat meet was the equivalent of the scene in Heat in which De Niro and Pacino finally share the screen at the same time – fascinating and not one bit of a letdown. This, of course, is regardless of what these famous cats thought – which was obvious and complete indifference.

In the end, much like Henri says he’s his own cat, the Internet Cat Video Festival is its own thing. As the festival is sponsored by the Walker Art Center, one of the premiere contemporary art museums in the United States, the curators may have been afraid of how they would be perceived by the art world for creating this event. Is it art? Maybe. Is it foolishness? Maybe. …but maybe it’s both. One thing is for certain: it makes everyone happy. For most people, the question about these videos as “art” never enters the picture. People forgot their troubles and surrounded themselves with 13,000 other people who spoke the same language. This hardly happens anywhere else. The goal is just a bunch of people hanging out together being entertained by cat videos – and there wasn’t a person in attendance who could honesty say that didn’t happen at the end.

As goofy and low brow as it may seem on the surface, it’s an incredibly unique and special experience in a way that is difficult to describe only because nothing like this has ever happened before. It’s perhaps made of fluff (pun not intended), but is more important than it seems. Despite an almost complete lack of humans in the films, it is indeed humanizing the internet.

Via Instagram: staciaannmpls


MN Musicians Vote NO

25 Oct

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – we believe in bringing people together and building them up, whether it’s through music, art, theater and fashion or through politics. It doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree – that’s most of the fun of criticism and the arts – but it does mean that the channels of communication and exchange have to be open. We have to be able to say “yes” to each other as artists and humans, and this fall, that means voting NO on these two hurtful and divisive amendments.

The Marriage Inequality amendment would enshrine discrimination into Minnesota’s constitution and hurt the thousands of GLBTQ families by making them permanent second class citizens. Just like the best remedy for crappy music is to have more music, the best way to protect marriage is to expand it to all those who participate in the institution.

The Voter Restriction amendment is an unfunded mandate that would force expensive changes on Minnesota’s voters and unfairly targets the elderly, the poor, veterans and college students. It’s like telling the most interesting people in your life that they aren’t worth the effort, while at the same time voting for a tax hike, because that’s how this monstrosity would have to be funded. Both of these constitutional amendments would put us in a poorer, more divided place, and Minnesota can do better.

We’re sure you’ve heard these messages before, but we’re in the last weeks of the campaigning, and so now is the time to get involved. Please join us on Friday the 26th and Saturday the 27th at the Triple Rock Social Club – you can get your tickets here – for two kickass lineups that should leave you fired up to make a change. Ticket proceeds will benefit the two organizations taking the lead against these amendments, Minnesotans United for All Families on Marriage Inequality and Take Action MN on Voter Restriction. Your dollars help them air TV and radio ads, run campaign offices and get out the vote, but more than your dollars, your volunteer hours can make a huge impact – just click through to the website to find out more information about phone banking and door knocking. Just like having a conversation about your new favorite band is the best way to build up that band, a conversation you have about why you are voting NO is the best way to get that word out and build the vote NO movement. Check the Facebook event for some of the chatter and the music community members participating.

Thanks to the great folks at Modern Radio Record Label for helping get this all together, to Burlesque of North America for the sick poster and to the Triple Rock for being such awesome hosts. We’ll see you all this weekend, and out at the polls on November 6. And if you need a little more convincing, here are a couple great videos related to the issues of each amendment – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on equality, and Sarah Silverman skewering voter restriction. So vote NO, if only for your Nana.

Kick-start my Heart

30 May

Yeah, I realize that headline’s probably been used a billion times to talk about the crowd-source funding site Kickstarter, but whatever! Suck it!

We here at CakeIn15 have helped successfully fund various local projects in the past – Caroline Smith & the Good Night Sleeps, Zoo Animal, Zak Sally,Bethany Larson & the Bees Knees, Koo Koo Kanga Roo, and 4onthefloor, among others.

We thought it was about time you checked out some of the newest crop of our fav locals trying to make some art via this machine they call Kickstarter. Give ’em a look and see if you can dig into yer pockets to find some change to share. Art!

The Goondas

These guys are some of our favs in the Twin Cities. They’re crazy in the best way, they love what they do, and Brenden is oh-so-fashionable with his homemade recycled jeans. Oh – and they’re crazy. Did we mention that?


One of my fav poster artists from Mpls is finally coming out with something I don’t need more wall room for. I mean, I’m all for wall art, but there are not enough walls in my house to fit everything by the local poster artists I love! This project means I can hold in my hand some awesome pictures by the fabulous DWITT.

Margaret Lane

Oh, Miss Margaret. You probably first met her through her old band Hildur Victoria, who CakeIn15 were also huge fans of. Ms. Lane has decided enough is enough. Her music can’t be contained and so she’s making her first solo LP! We can’t wait to hear it!

2012 Stone Arch Bridge Festival Announced

19 Apr

So this year there’s some new things!

First off, the festival hours have been extended until 7pm both Saturday and Sunday, so that’s pretty great, AND they’ve added night shows on Friday and Saturday – FREE night shows! (Those will be announced later)

There’s also a new partnership with the No Coast Craft-o-rama indie artists we all know and love – with a sweet spot for them in Father Hennepin Park – so that’s super rad.

Here’s the day schedule for this year’s Stone Arch Bridge Festival bands:

Saturday, June 16

Star Tribune Stage in Father Hennepin Park

11:15 am – Karl Remus
12:15 pm – Schoenburg
1:15 pm – FAIRFAX, AK
2:15 pm – Very Small Animal
3:15 pm – Art Vandalay
4:15 pm – Tortuga!
5:15 pm – Brian Laidlaw & the Family Trade
6:15 pm – Kevin Steinman

Cities 97 Stage on Water Power Park

12:00 pm – Silent Agency
1:15 pm – Kaleidoscope Effect
2:30 pm – Squares
3:45 pm – Two Harbors
5:00 pm – Fire in the Northern Firs
6:15 pm – Sleep Study

City Pages Stage under the Central Avenue Bridge

11:15 am – Frank Boyle & His Eminent Acoustic Entourage
12:15 pm –  Peter Lochner
1:15 pm – Bob & Lynn Dixon
2:15 pm – Nina Yasmineh
3:15 pm – Jeff Ray & Hurricane Harold
4:15 pm – Brianna Lane
5:15 pm – Mayfly Rooks
6:15 pm – Martin Devaney

Sunday, June 17

Star Tribune Stage in Father Hennepin Park

11:15 am – David Booth
12:15 pm – i like you
1:15 pm – Joey Verskotzi
2:15 pm – Electric String Quartet
3:15 pm – Bernie King & the Guilty Pleasures
4:15 pm – Pioneer Son
5:15 pm – Aldine
6:15 pm – Joey Ryan & the Inks

Cities 97 Stage in Water Power Park

11:15 am – Hunting Club
12:00 pm – Small Cities
1:15 pm – Roster McCabe
2:30 pm – The Pinsch
3:45 pm – Ghostmouth
5:00 pm – Van Stee
6:15 pm – Dream Crusher

City Pages Stage under the Central Avenue Bridge

11:15 am – Tyler Haag
12:15 pm – Steve Parry
1:15 pm – Niki Becker
2:15 pm – Dan Israel
3:15 pm – Kara Laudon
4:15 pm – Dan Mariska
5:15 pm – Matt Moberg
6:15 pm – Walker Fields

The 802 Tour

26 Mar

While introducing the members of the 802 tour, Walker Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither remarked on how the talents of the musicians involved dissolved genres into something new. That’s not exactly the case, because the genres still very much present and instead of a dissolution, it’s a delectable layer cake of musicality. Intermingling on stage were the classical training and pop sensibilities of composers and pianists Nico Muhly and Thomas Bartlett (performing under the name Doveman), the folk traditionalism of Sam Amidon and Nadia Sirota‘s formalist viola, blended with an improvisational jazz feel, frosted with a late-night jam and and some chatty camaraderie. Touring all together for the first time in six years, these friends from Vermont (“802” is the state’s only area code) made the stage at the Walker their cozy confines for an absorbing evening of music.

Thomas Bartlett (Dovemnan), Nadia Sirota, Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon. Photo by Matt Luem.

Muhly started off the evening with mentions of meeting RT Rybak, Minneapolis’ “foxy mayor” and some chatty banter about rolling out of bed to catch an early matinee of the new Hunger Games movie – Muhly noted that he and Sirota would be working out their “emotional hangover” while Amidon and Bartlett would just be getting over their boredom – popped up later in the night. The group got started with a loose composition with Amidon on banjo, Sirota at her viola and Bartlett and Muhly trading off on the Steinway grand piano, the two keyboards and laptop with some pre-programmed loops, the two of them leaning over eachother, hugging around eachother to reach keys, a visual level of the familiar intimacy of the music. Amidon played a traditional Irish tune, switching over to a guitar to accompany his plain, strong voice, while Muhly added a twinkling piano line that would not have been out of place on a Jónsi record. Muhly played a “messy little piano piece” that he had written for himself and the staccato, bouncy energy of the work fit his own upbeat mood. They ended their first set with a sprawling, gorgeous composition by Muhly written for Sirota and her viola entitled “Keep In Touch”, which featured a looping sample of Anotny Hegarty’s haunting voice to build the ebb and flow of the piece, ending in a gorgeous cacophony of forceful strings, keys, beats and samples, something akin to the expansiveness achieved by The Bad Plus.

For the second set of the evening, the quartet were joined by The Laurels String Quartet (Muhly joked about being terrified that they would all be named Laurel) who added two violins, a viola and cello to the proceedings, fleshing out arrangements that Muhly had written for a trio of Bartlett’s Doveman songs, including “Angel’s Share”. Whilst singing, Bartlett had a whispered, breathy hush like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, and with a similar lyrical knottiness that was well served by the accompanying musicians. The second set ended with a composition Muhly wrote for Amidon, “Only Tune”, based on the folk song “Two Sisters”. This murder ballad and the ensuing fantastical goriness (one sister kills another by pushing her in the river and when the body is fished out, a violin is made from her bones) got a stuttering, broken start, with Amidon repeating the opening over and over in a discordant build, but once the chorus of “Oh the wind and the rain!” was reached, there was a gale of sound on and off stage, as the members of the Laurels String Quartet played up in the aisles to bring the sound all around the audience. There was also a sense of intimate humor about the composition, as part of the rhythm section was created with a mic next to Muhly bruhing Bartletts hair, as Bartlett continued to bang away on the Steinway. That was perhaps the takeaway from the evening – when old friends re-invent traditions, the result is new and enveloping, and the music comes from all around.

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.