‘Don’t think too hard. Think with your heart. Let’s go.”
Marc Bamuthi Joseph is conducting a WallTalk workshop at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s theater. The kids are middle and high school students from Young Achievers Pilot School, Dorchester Academy, Urban Science Academy, and McKinley South End Academy; WallTalk is an ICA art and writing program designed to improve their critical thinking and verbal literacy.
On his easel, Joseph has written the title of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”
“I want you to rewrite the title and put yourselves in it,” he tells the kids. “Two minutes. No wrong answers.”
Throughout the workshop, he’s encouraging (“Excellent work, guys!”) and collegial (“Are we cool? Great!”); he treats his students as peers. It’s a gray day on the waterfront, but the theater is lit up by what he later calls “the glow of inclusion.”
Joseph may be wearing his poet cap (a checkered scally cap, in fact) on this occasion, but the Queens-born Oakland resident is also a performance artist, a playwright, an actor, a dancer, a curator, an educator, an activist, and an environmentalist. He’s won the National Poetry Slam; he’s lectured in universities all over America and been a commentator on National Public Radio. He was an inaugural recipient of the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship. His projects include Youth Speaks, the Living Word Festival for Literary Arts, and the Life Is Living urban-life festivals. He flew into Boston from California to do the WallTalk workshop, and he’ll be back at the ICA this Friday and Saturday for his latest multimedia extravaganza, “red, black & GREEN: a blues.”
The piece, which premiered last October in San Francisco, reunites Joseph, as writer/performer, with six artists from his “The Break/s: A Mixtape for Stage” crew: director Michael John Garcés, choreographer Stacey Printz, musician Tommy Shepherd, documentary filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, lighting designer James Clotfelter, and media designer David Szlasa. Joseph will be joined on stage by Shepherd, dancer/actor Traci Tolmaire, and vocalist/visual artist Theaster Gates.
The green of the title, he explains, has to do with the piece’s urban ecology slant. “Red, black, and green,” he says, “references the Pan-African flag that Marcus Garvey popularized here. And also, Amiri Baraka in his former life as LeRoi Jones wrote about ‘a blues people,’ and I often think about that as an evocative depiction of black music, black life.”
The piece itself, he says, emerged out of the outdoor Life Is Living festivals, and he believes that because it “picked up the ephemera of these festivals in Houston and Oakland and Chicago and New York, it really does move across the landscape of America and echoes the ghosts, let’s say, of the various people that we met along the way.”
“Reciprocity” is a key word for Joseph, so don’t expect to just sit back and watch. “When you first come into the theater,” he says, “you don’t take your seats. You come onstage, and these installation pieces that Theaster Gates has designed and constructed are there to be interacted with and perused by audience members.”
“The deal, though,” he continues, “is that the performers are also in the space. So the first half-hour of the work is both a visual-arts exhibit and an interactive performance.” He adds that, as in a film festival or a music festival, you might not get to see everything. “Maybe you just follow Traci, and you miss an act on another part of the stage. Or you just follow Tommy, because what he does musically and instrumentally is off the chain, and you might not hear Theaster singing.”
Overseeing all this is Garcés, artistic director of Los Angeles’s community-based Cornerstone Theatre Company. His job as director of the show, he says over the phone from Los Angeles, entails more than just keeping all those artists and audience members on stage from bumping into one another.
“Bamuthi will come in with a vision and ideas and text for a piece,” he explains, “and my job is to concretize that vision. . . . I figured out how we were going to use all those elements and how we were going to integrate them. So I really collaborate with him to make the piece happen.”
It all started for Joseph in New York, where he appeared on Broadway, as a fourth-grader, in a show called “The Tap Dance Kid.” But he says his performance career really began after he graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta and started teaching 10th-graders.
“You’re making us write all these poems,” they complained. “You write a poem.”
So Joseph did. Soon, he says, he was performing in the local poetry scene. “Then I was brought in by George Soros and his foundation to do this Youth Against War program in the former Yugoslavia, where I worked with Kosovar Gypsies, kids, and Croats and Serbians to find common ground through poetry.”
He moved to Oakland 11 years ago, to what he calls “a hotbed of activist culture,” and worked with James Kass, who had founded Youth Speaks in 1996. Still, he says, “I also had an interest in adapting some of these principles for adult audiences and incorporating visual art, music, and dance in an exploratory way, in terms of environments. So the theatrical work, the festival work, the interdisciplinary work all came through the Living Word Project.”
The Life Is Living festivals have encompassed everything from Talib Kweli on a solar-powered stage to morning yoga. Could Boston have such a festival in one of its urban parks? “Absolutely,” he says. “But the Life Is Living Festival isn’t actually about the festival. It’s about the organizing model.” In Houston, Life Is Living brought together the Bush Cares Project, Rice University’s architectural department, urban graffiti artists Aerosol Warfare, and the Houston Dynamo soccer team. “We bring these groups together for months in advance of the festival itself. We don’t just land and do a show. It’s about the sustainability of partnerships after the festival is over.”
It’s also about the environment. “Environmental consciousness can’t just be about whales or solar energy or what you pick up at Whole Foods,” Joseph argues. “Environmental literacy necessarily has to be urban, it has to speak however many languages we have on planet Earth.”
He has defined “community” as “people who share space and values.” Does he think America can be a community? “Yes. But do we often choose not to be? Yes. You don’t have to look any further than our House of Representatives as a model of a broken sense of community. The inability to compromise and the shortsightedness . . . might be our chief impediment. But anything is possible. I’m a prisoner of hope, what can I say?”