Marc Bamuthi Joseph | Interview

An actor-dancer-poet-teacher unpacks his latest performance and gets to the heart of what kids in poor communities face.

 (Photo: Bethanie Hines)
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Photo: Bethanie HinesMarc Bamuthi Joseph
 (Photo: Bethanie Hines)
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Photo: Bethanie HinesMarc Bamuthi Joseph with youth from the Living Word Project
 (Photo: Bethanie Hines)
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Photo: Bethanie HinesMarc Bamuthi Joseph/The Living Word Project with Theaster Gates: red, black and GREEN: a blues
 (Photo: Bethanie Hines)
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Photo: Bethanie HinesMarc Bamuthi Joseph/The Living Word Project with Theaster Gates: red, black and GREEN: a blues
 (Photo: Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi)
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Photo: Eli Jacobs-FantauzziMarc Bamuthi Joseph/The Living Word Project with Theaster Gates: red, black and GREEN: a blues

On Leap Day, Marc Bamuthi Joseph traveled directly from the San Francisco International Airport to the corner of a large conference table in Chicago, in the offices of the Museum of Contemporary Art. From April 12–14, the MCA’s theater presents red, black and GREEN: a blues, Joseph’s interdisciplinary performance and collaboration with artist Theaster Gates, who designed its moving set. Before the final show, during an afternoon event called SHareOUT, that set becomes the domain of six local youth groups for creative expression: Kuumba Lynx, YOUmedia, Young Chicago Authors, the MCA’s Creative Agency and the Better Boys Foundation’s LAB programs for filmmaking and community gardening.

In addition to numerous other gigs—and his big new one, director of performing arts at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—Joseph has organized Life Is Living eco-festivals in city parks around the U.S. Interviews, films, murals and poetry generated at four sites including Uptown’s Clarendon Park became the source material for a blues, which looks at intersections between environmental concerns and communities of color. To quote the MCA’s press release, a blues “express[es] the challenge of living green where violent crime and poor education pose a more imminent danger than ecological crisis.”

There’s “a great path of relationship between the formation of [a blues], the organized model which we call the ‘creative ecosystem,’ and the performance of the work,” Joseph told me across the corner of that table. Read on for his fascinating explanation of what that means.

As one of the cities that gave birth to a blues, how is Chicago represented in the performance?
The first 15 minutes are inspired by events that happened here. And so bringing it back around makes a lot of sense.

What happens during Life Is Living festivals and what were the goals when you started producing them in 2008?
Their purpose was to draw attention to and promote environmental literacy in underserved or under-resourced neighborhoods. My primary desire, coming from a poetic background, was to do our best to expand the vocabulary and paths of access to environmental consciousness and practice. In Chicago in 2009, there were record numbers of public schoolchildren that were murdered so, here, it made more sense to focus not on “green” as the central codifier of environmental literacy, but on life. The module was, “if you’re brown you can’t go green until you hold a respect for black life.” In Uptown, the festival included a second line for those who were departed, but also a graffiti battle [and] performances on solar-powered stages. We worked with Kuumba Lynx and the MCA and other partners, and that changed the organizing model of the festival as well. So this city was really a fulcrum, because in New York and in Oakland prior to coming to Chicago, [Life Is Living] really just landed in a park and threw an event [that was] young and hip-hop–based, and had all these avatars of green [living] in central locations. 

And they were all one-day events?
All single-day. So beginning [in Chicago], we changed the model to take this question, “What sustains life in my community?” and ask more than 30 different partners to respond. Their responses became the palette and the canvas for the festival that ensued. Instead of doing all the programming [for Life Is Living], we relied on community partners to take over and to demonstrate to one another what it meant to work in-ecosystem. Which tied a certain level of diversity to the environmental question, beyond play-back theater about the environment, beyond issuing water bottles. There was a free-breakfast program and we planted trees on that day. But there was also a soccer tournament and a skate park. Action, sports, politics, youth work, sustainable food, along with all of these performance aesthetics: All of that really focused here [in Chicago].

And became the approach that the festival adopted going forward.
Right. In other cities, what we’ve tried to replicate is that pathway to the organizing model such that—I think Scottsdale being the one exception—there’s always multiple impressions: I or Theaster [Gates] or Tommy [Shepherd, a.k.a. Emcee Soulati] or Traci [Tolmaire, dancer] always visit a city prior to coming in [for Life Is Living] with an effort to connect partners around this question of, “What sustains life?” …What we hope to create is a conversation about the environment that literally is at the marrow of how we sustain ourselves in poor neighborhoods.

How present do you think that question and conversation are in those neighborhoods’ schools?
Someone drops out of school every 26 seconds in this country. [This oft-cited statistic comes from a 2007 report by Education Week, whose 2011 report shows modest improvement in some areas.Dropout rates are still high, however, and significantly higher among black and Hispanic students compared to analogous white and Asian student populations.] There’s a systemic lack of investment and success nationally in public education. It’s so popular in political rhetoric to talk about education. It’s everybody’s pet project and yet we’re failing our kids. And the release valves for kids failed by the system vary according to economic class.

What do you mean by “release valves”?
If you didn’t graduate from high school, then what? Where do you go? If you come from a middle-income family, there are more options, locally, within the micro-climate of your environment. If you don’t come from wealth or you don’t come from stability, there are fewer options. The way that that comes around, we see time and time again, is in gang violence, petty larceny, engagement with the prison-industrial complex and, too often, murder.… That narrative of, We failed our kids, our kids don’t have literacy or vocabulary and then, the next week, there’s crime and corporal punishment: That’s the narrative we wish to break. 

Both in the language about a blues and the mission of another organization with which you’ve been involved, Youth Speaks, the word “literacy” is used broadly. Can you describe what the word means to you?
Sure. At Youth Speaks, we talk about urban oral literacy, and… Okay: So we’re sitting here at the MCA and there are these multivalent, canonical points of reference that a contemporary-art center in a major city is responsible for transmitting to the world. I walked in here today and I saw the iconography of Keith Haring, [whose art] I grew up with and who I love. Three months from now, there may be an exhibit [here] about Brazil or India. I can go to the Smart Museum [of Art] and see a feasts exhibit, right? There are all these points of entry, but those points of entry are inclined to a certain worldview and a certain experience.

What we try to do at Youth Speaks is expand the canonical points of reference so that, in order to engage with what these kids and their mentors are communicating, you don’t have to read Dostoyevsky but maybe you do have to read Ben Okri. You don’t have to engage with Mozart or Beethoven or Stravinsky but maybe you need to listen to Wiz Khalifa or Nicki Minaj. It’s a different kind of code-switching ethic that we promote, certainly with Life is Living and red, black and GREEN and definitely at Youth Speaks and the Brave New Voices Network—this notion of multiple points of canonical reference being communicated through the spoken medium, intelligently, with political acumen and, mostly, just voracious urgency. All of that is part of our ethic, is part of our performance culture.

So greater literacy not just among kids, but a greater fluency among adults in the realities of these kids’ experience.
I think that’s a beautiful way of framing it. I sometimes ask my students to make an aesthetic family tree, an aesthetic genealogy. “Who are the writers who preceded you?” Sometimes, I get, “Diane di Prima and Sylvia Plath gave birth to…” Or, you know, “Carson McCullers led me to…” But a lot of times I get, “It’s Tracy Chapman to Corinne Bailey Rae.” What I learned from that is that most of the books, most of the writers that have informed and inspired myself and many of the people that I work with, aren’t part of their conventional canon. They’re not referencing Emerson or Whitman as their literary antecedents. They’re referencing KRS-One.

How do we as educators facilitate a more open book? How do we lengthen and stretch the libraries that folks need to pass through in order to better understand one another? Flying here today, I was reading Nikky Finney’s book Head Off and Split, which just won the National Book Award [for poetry]. I read her writing and it’s very clear that she’s part of a lineage. There are young poets who may not even be aware that they’re part of that same lineage but they engage [you] because they feel it. Providing a safe space for them to share their work, and having their parents and educators hear it, inspires a desire to find out, What’s at the root of this great poetry that this 16- or 17- or 18-year-old kid is spitting? What’s at the heart of it? What’s at the root of it? Then, there’s less fear—there’s less fear because this kid, who looks a certain way that gave me anxiety, who maybe I stigmatized in a certain way, is reading something so powerful and so present that I want to figure out where that kid is coming from. I think that dissolves borders and boundaries and makes us collectively safer and elevates the conversation.

Would you say, to continue the tree analogy, that the “branches” of expression, by kids in communities that are underserved and wracked with violence, frighten adults?
It’s no wonder, you know what I mean? Youth is shocking and abrasive. [Laughs] It’s boisterous and unsettling. People mature, and if you’re lucky enough to mature and grow older, hopefully it’s because you’re seeking peace. Young people disrupt that.

They always have. The stakes today are just higher.
The consequences are also much more extreme. What we do [in this work] isn’t always labeled as such, but it really is conflict resolution and nonviolence training through being able to use your words. I have two kids, six-and-a-half and ten years old. [When] they come up to me, shaking and hurt, I say, “Use your words, baby. Use your words.” The capacity to use language in creative ways is life-saving.

Just to locate yourself in what’s happening, in what you’re feeling.
Yeah, that’s the first step, I think: getting to what it is. But the second thing, which might even be more important, is the safe space that validates that language. Maybe even more important than the speaker is the audience, is the container. When I leave here, I’m going to go to the Louder Than a Bomb prelims over at Columbia College [Chicago], to bear witness. I don’t have to emcee or host or be directly involved with it. At this point, I’m a good audience member, you know what I mean? Teachers, elders or anybody in a position working with young folks: More than being able to instruct, you really have to be able to listen. A community of engaged listeners capable of energetic reciprocity makes the the communication that much richer and more visceral and important.

Youth Speaks was founded in 1996. Were you involved from the start? 
I came later, in in ’99. The founder, James Kass, was running programs and I was teaching tenth-grade English. We were both invited to Bosnia for this three-week festival [in Mostar] called Youth Against War, which brought young people together who were doing film or graphic design or circus work and we, the Americans, came in to do these spoken-word workshops with Kosovar Gypsy kids and Croatians and Serbians. After those three weeks of working together, [Kass and I] wanted to do good forever. [Laughs]

You were teaching high-school sophomore English where, in Oakland?
In San Francisco, [after] I went to Morehouse College in Atlanta. I came to the Bay Area in ’97 and taught until I met James and was, like, “Oh, we can actually reach more kids [by] doing this.”

It was a move toward reaching more kids, and not a move away from the school system?
That, and I was also doing doctoral work at [the University of California at] Berkeley and was feeling the weight of academic isolation, was feeling the limitations of working within a prescribed curricular structure. I was 23, I had hella energy and I felt like I could do everything else later. There was the feeling of, “This is the work for right now,” to do this outreach. And my dad was, like, “Look, bruh.” [Laughs] “You have this safe thing happening right here, and you have this other safe thing happening right here, and you’re going to go be a poet?” I’m like, “Dad, I just won the National Poetry Slam.” He’s like, “What’s a poetry slam? Does it come with benefits? What’s the deal?” [Laughs]

How have attitudes and expectations changed within that age bracket over 15 years?
Those first kids are now in their mid- and late-twenties. Those are the kids who voted for Obama. Those are children of the war in Iraq. They are the ones that made the Internet go. There’s a closer proximity to celebrity now than there was 15 years ago—instant celebrity. My son, my 10-year-old, has a YouTube channel. He makes movies and uploads them. I think that a thing we’ve lost in the last 15 years, maybe in the last 25 years, in this generation, is a desire to be great. This generation would rather be rich and/or famous, particularly famous, than great. The things that people eat and [the clothing that they] take off to be on TV is crazy. At the same time, that same generation is more fluent, more interdisciplinary and works more efficiently, in more nomadic or migratory ways.

I think I’m in Generation X. I’m 36. My generation is supposed to be apathetic. I think this generation cares a whole lot and has the aptitude and the mechanisms to carry out a vision. The last time I was [at the MCA, for] the break/s: That piece was inspired by Jeff Chang, who starts his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop with the declaration that generations are fictions, and talks about how the next generation is always the one to name the previous one, how the previous generation always names the next. So I don’t want to go too deep into what I think [kids today are doing] because they’re naming and defining themselves. But there is a big swing [among them] between substance-less activity in pursuit of celebrity, and really deep entrepreneurial, interdisciplinary, politically active mindset-and-go.

Explain if you will how the set for a blues works and how it relates to the show. 
My main collaborator on this piece is Theaster Gates, who I think is a freaking genius. Theaster’s work preserves the social and physical architecture of what was, and repurposes physical environment for new reality.

And that’s connected to the concept of sustainability.
Absolutely. The set is made out of 100 percent Chicago garbage, all found materials. The design of the set is a shotgun house, because the piece, in addition to Chicago, also touches Harlem, Oakland and Houston. The idea of the shotgun house, which was so key to the social and physical environments in the Third Ward in Houston, is really the model for how this modular event, the SHareOUT, works. The SHareOUT is an opportunity for different groups to take the same physical architecture and use it as the site of an intervention, to take this same question, “What sustains life?” and use this brilliant social sculpture by this fantastic craftsman, and identify and incorporate its physical objects in a way that enables us to enter into their response to the question of sustainability.

Aside from its role in a blues proper, Theaster’s set serves during the SHareOUT as a kind of conduit for translation?
Brilliantly put. It’s a kind of psych-test, like, when you give folks eight blocks and you say, “Put them together and what do you see?” That’s what Theaster’s set is like. There are four main structures: a red one, a black one, a green one and a blue one. They represent four cities [during a blues]: Houston, Harlem, Oakland and Chicago. The four colors and the four cities correspond to four seasons. We begin in Chicago in summer, we move to Houston in autumn, we engage with Harlem in New York in winter and we land in Oakland in spring. We take these pieces and pull them apart to make a narrative, to make a gallery space, to make a performance environment, to indicate the city. We invite different groups [during the SHareOUT] to do the same thing and we ask them the same questions.

Do those groups get carte blanche with Theaster’s set?
They do because, again, that’s the model. That’s the creative ecosystem at work. Respond to a question, do it your way and that manifestation is the curriculum, it is the content, it is how we read “environment” through your eyes or through your art.

Is a blues suitable for young audiences?
There’s no nudity and there isn’t excessive profane language. I think it’s really elegant language, actually. At all of our previous shows [in other cities] there have been little kids, five- to 10-year-olds, lots of high-school kids and college kids. It’s also, for me, the most sophisticated thing that I’ve done, I feel.

In what sense?
I’m a little older and slower now. Not in a way that lacks fire or lacks passion, but I take a more steadied approach to narrative. Working with Theaster has me thinking more in terms of visual landscape. The materials from the set themselves—old wood from barns, fire hoses or a cut-open fire hose that wraps around the frame of an old chair, the makings of a front porch, corrugated wood, hung sneakers, milk crates, old mattresses—there’s something about the physical objects having such story in and of themselves that it’s hard for the piece itself not to adopt and become saturated with some of that maturity. And then there’s the tension of this environmental crisis and escalating murder rates. So there’s a really beautiful play [in a blues] between the immediacy and urgency of global and social crisis, and the kind of slowness and texture of the objects that we’re using to tell these stories.

Embracing that slowness, cultivating that patience, seems deeply connected to this question of how we might live more sustainably, especially with regard to the environment.
That’s it. “Take care of your block.” That really is it. Go to Europe, where gas prices are $30 a liter or whatever they are and you’ll be like, “There’s a reason why everybody’s on a bicycle here, why public transportation means what it means here.”

What role does dance play in a blues, compared to the break/s, which had so much movement for you in it?
What’s great about the dance [in a blues] is that I’m not by myself. And Traci Tolmaire, who’s from Chicago, is crazy-versatile.

How did you two connect?
Traci I directed in a play in 2010 and I said, “Oh, you do this, that and this? Imma holler at you.” [Laughs] There’s partnering in this work and I’ve never really done that before; we totally take advantage of her versatility so there’s lyical and contemporary movement, there’s a little bit of footworking, there’s a little bit of tap, there’s hip-hop, all of these different forms.

In terms of this intersection of movement and text, even when both were happening [in the break/s], they were happening through my body and my body tells a certain story. Traci’s presence allows us to expand both, really critically. Tommy and Theaster both dance a little bit as well, although they both focused on the making of the music. What’s also great about Traci is that she plays other characters and so her movement is informed by her incredible character work and her acting. There’s an undercurrent of new fiction, or applied fiction, that’s part of the movement vocabulary in a way that hasn’t happened in [my] prior works.

After your research and work on this project, how do you feel about the status of environmentalism in the U.S.?
It’s a downer. It is. And also, we can remedy the situation. I don’t know to what extent at this point, I don’t know to what degree. I’m not a climate scientist, so I don’t have all the answers. I do know that the level of discourse in this country is deplorable. It really is, given what we’re up against. Even if global warming is a fiction, even if global warming is myth, I can’t see how it hurts to use less, just to use less stuff.

There’s no downside?
There is no downside to being environmentally responsible! [Laughs]

red, black and GREEN: a blues plays the MCA Stage April 12–14. Catch local kids onstage on April 14 during the SHareOUT, 1:30–4pm, free with museum admission. Admission is also free to “At Your Own Risk: what is to be done,” Joseph’s talk with Van Jones on April 10 at the International House at the University of Chicago, from 7–8:30pm.

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