During their walking “tours,” theatergoers can examine four structures representing cities — Chicago, Houston, New York, and Oakland. In each of these cities, Living Word Project’s artistic director Marc Bamuthi Joseph has produced one of his Life Is Living urban eco-festivals. Together, these cabins on the stage, crafted by artist Theaster Gates, form a shotgun house. Joseph describes it as similar to a shack in a township in Soweto, Johannesburg, or on a back road in Fifth Ward Houston. An actor occupies each of the structures.
“The actors are basically performing aspects of the show that will make a little deeper sense later,” says Joseph, referring to the rest of his 90-minute meditation on what sustains life in struggling communities. “The whole first half-hour is a gallery installation that’s a foreshadowing of the linear play to come.” It all starts Thursday at REDCAT.
Directed by Michael John Garcés (also the artistic director of Cornerstone Theater), red, black & GREEN: a blues breathes life into the people and gives voice to the stories that were seen and heard at the Life Is Living eco-festivals in these four cities. Joseph, an Alpert Award-winning arts activist, narrates. Tommy Shepherd (a.k.a. Emcee Soulati), Traci Tolmaire and Yaw embody the characters and deliver their testimony in rap, song, monologue and poem.
“Increasingly, I believe that environmentalism is the 21st-century human rights practice and quandary,” says Joseph. “No matter how you feel about religion, race, gun control; whether you’re HIV positive or not, gay or straight, have kids or not — the planet is the thing that we share. There’s also a shared accountability in the stewardship of that planet.”
This production is part of Joseph’s vision to grow awareness about our collective responsibility for the planet. He investigates what living green means to black and brown communities experiencing social and economic stress.
“The play is a performed documentary of the process of creating in these four American cities a festival that re-examines the relationship of New Majority America to the environmental movement,” says Joseph. “By New Majority America, I mean the poor, the colored, the underclass, the folks who in 20 years will assume the demographic majority in the country. As provocative as that term may be, maybe a simpler way of saying it is the piece examines environmentalism across African America. Not in a top-down, didactic way, but by accessing simple rituals, quiet moments, hard truths, and innovative practices that inspire a different relationship to ecology in urban America.”
For Joseph, red, black & GREEN: a blues is an artifact of the real work, which remains the production of these Life Is Living festivals. “Theater is a mechanism, but not the only mechanism that we use as an instrument to convey what we’re doing,” he says. “Production of these festivals is performative.”
In October 2012, 6,000 supporters gathered in Oakland’s DeFremery Park, a.k.a. Lil Bobby Hutton Park, for Life Is Living. Rapper Talib Kweli performed a DJ set, poets braved an open mic, and people had access to a Teachers Lounge, graffiti and science exhibition, skate competition, health screenings, and HIV testing. But the centerpiece of this and every eco-festival is the question, what sustains life in your community? Joseph asked several community members to respond to the question with a particular practice, their way of demonstrating a different path forward to environmental responsibility.
red, black & GREEN: a blues premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where Joseph serves as the director of performing arts, in October 2011. Since then, the show has traveled to 15 cities. “I don’t just measure the success by the people that come in, but by the depth of emotional resonance that’s palpable in the room,” says Joseph. “That’s been the best part for us as performers.”
Four years ago, New York City-born Joseph launched Life Is Living to bring an understanding of environmental justice to communities that were confronting issues more immediate than the health of their natural environment — namely, survival. The series of festivals in neglected parks in underserved neighborhoods attempts to speak to the residents in a familiar language, broadcasting messages by integrating different styles and cultures of communication.
“Through the practice of organizing, through the language of music, through the politics and structure of performance, we get at the urgency of environment and environmental stewardship in an accessible and innovative way,” he says.
Joseph believes the festival presenters in each city begin to understand the importance of the process along with the performance. Through Life Is Living, these producers construct community around environmental justice, and he hopes that they will continue to work outside the boundaries of their buildings,with goals that reach beyond selling tickets.
Both the festivals and theatrical work are extensions of Joseph. “I’m as much an academic and curator as I am a hip-hop head,” he says. He considers Shakespeare, Chaucer and Emily Dickinson part of his canon, as well as hip-hop artists Chuck D, KRS-One and Kendrick Lamar. Growing up, the writer Joseph aspired to a spot somewhere between Chuck D and Toni Morrison.
“I like to think that my writing practice is still inside that sweet spot,” says Joseph. “I think it gives writers of our generation an added level of fluency because in addition to Spanish or English or Mandarin or Arabic, we also speak hip-hop. It’s what makes Junot DÃaz’s writing so rich, so lush –Â that there’s a proximity to the urban experience that’s carried on the tongue that gets flipped without trying. There’s always double entendre at work, and so the culture does the work of speaking to the multitudes for us. It’s already embedded in the language itself. I don’t see myself as trying to intentionally isolate or sequester myself inside the culture. In fact, hip-hop culture lets me speak with two tongues. I take advantage of where I come from, and it shows up in the language.”
In addition to upcoming Life Is Livings in Oakland in 2013, and Houston and Washington, D.C., in 2014, Joseph is organizing The Future of Soul Think Tank at Yerba Buena. It’s part of a broader organizing model he calls The Creative Ecosystem, which he believes allows culture makers who wouldn’t ordinarily be in touch to work on something together on a large path of inquiry. The think tank, Joseph says, will ruminate on “what soul and soul music will look like in 2038.”
Living in Oakland has fostered Joseph’s personal artistic practice. Experimentation, he says, is part of the cultural norm. “We’re a very politically progressive place. They say the ’60s never left San Francisco. That’s represented in politics, communication style and openness to something new.”
When red, black & GREEN: a blues ends each night, the audience is once again invited back on stage, to “come down and kick it,” says Joseph.
red, black & GREEN: a blues, REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles 90012. Thu-Sat 8:30 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Sunday. Tickets: $10-$25. www.redcat.org. 213 237-2800.
*** All photos of Â red, black & GREEN: a blues by Bethanie Hines