BWW Reviews: 'red, black and GREEN: a blues' at the Terrace Theater
By reputation the Kennedy Center devotes much of its programming to traditional arts for traditional (i.e., mostly white, mostly affluent) audiences. Given this upper-crust, elitist reputation it's a huge event when the Center turns over the mike-literally-to the Hip Hop generation, offering three weeks of programming-most of it free!-to anyone and everyone. The irony, of course, is that the artists of the One Mic festival probably look more alien to traditional KC audiences than anything they just saw in the recently-concluded World Stages festival. (Strange how the stuff that's closest to home can seem to come from out of the blue.)
For folks of a certain age, and you know who you are, the appeal of Hip-Hop is hard to understand; the whole genre gets stereotyped because of the publicity given to the crudest, most violent rappers. When you get past that noise however you find a poetic form that, like any genre of art, can be used to communicate anything and everything. Like any literary genre it can be gritty and misogynistic, but it can also be loving and engaged with the community. And as Hip Hop matures, it should come as no surprise that rappers are finally earning their place on the main stage.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the Living Word Project have combined rap, spirituals and dance to create an unforgettable show red, black, and Green: a blues (RbGb) that explores the challenges and ironies of an urban artist who gets deputized to help "Green" an inner city that is already under siege from its traditional challenges, and perhaps the greatest challenge of all-gentrification. Because the show represents the fruit of four separate projects staged in four cities, it has the feel of an intimate travelogue.
Although performed on the Terrace Theater stage, the show had an intimate feel; culture isn't just what happens on fancy stages or museums, it's what happens on your block. To reinforce Joseph's commitment to local culture he invites the audience onto the stage as the show begins, so that you can meet and interact with the artists. You circle the modular set created by Theaster Gates from recycled materials, a performance area that evokes a lot of history-small in scale, the tattered clapboard structure is studded with video screens featuring a variety of scenes from the life, with cast member Yaw ("Yoww") singing spirituals on the porch. The house breaks apart and creates its own celebratory space, with Tommy Shepherd banging out some mean rhythms while Joseph and fellow cast-member Traci Tolmaire (a truly talented actress and dancer in her own right) do a little jitterbugging that morphs quickly into movements of pain, a pain that is humorous at first but which can remind you of a very painful past. The choreography by Stacey Printz, which graces the whole performance, is by turns abstract, intense, and narrative in its scope, and gives voice to much of what goes unsaid here.
Joseph takes you through the different cities and the different attempts each community has made to improve their environment-community gardens, etc.-but he never lets you forget that for some people being 'environmentally correct' is the least of their problems. His oft-repeated refrain of 'How can I be Green when you won't let me breathe?' is a stinging rebuke to those who think that all the inner city needs is a recycling bin or two.
Some of the funniest moments are when Joseph recounts his interrogation at the hands of the terminally hip anti-Starbucks crowd in Harlem, or when he's trying to teach his son a little about Tupac Shakur, and the rapper's connections to the Oakland neighborhood where they live. There are also somber moments as well-Joseph's homage to Gil Scott Heron was special because of Heron's roots here in DC; and like so many of us, Joseph regrets the way that everyone (it seemed) watched Heron self-destruct, powerless to intervene. Heron himself had mixed feelings about being dubbed the founding father of Hip Hop, but it's clear that Joseph shares Heron's commitment to poetry as inspiration and as agitation for the greater good.
Unfortunately this show could only be in town for 2 nights-but as a preview, Joseph will be creating community performance projects in Brazil to coincide with the World Cup this Summer. If red, black and GREEN is any indication, Brazil is about to get radicalized in many ways.
Shown in photo: Marc Bamuthi Joseph and cast. Photo by Jati Lindsay.
Red, black and GREEN: a blues (RbGb) runs 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Performances for the Hip Hop Culture Worldwide: One Mic Festival take place March 25-April 14 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For tickets and more information call 202-467-4600 or visit: