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act: the break/s: a mixtape for stage—a review

Marc Bamuthi Joseph in the break/s. (photo by Bethanie Hines)
By Michael Hacker
[Incidentally, the anthology Michael published in last year won a Bram Stoker Award last weekend!]

“This story begins in the middle…”

So begins Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s the break/s: a mixtape for stage. In a darkened theater, surrounded by three large video screens and 2 musicians, Bamuthi Joseph starts prostrate in the middle of a circular spotlight, dead center, where the spindle of a turntable would be if we were looking at a gigantic vinyl record. There is no beginning nor end, no antecedent, no payoff, only now. Bamuthi Joseph is the vinyl, life is the needle, and it’s going to scratch.

Earlier, the beatboxer and percussionist Tommy Shepherd (aka Soulati) has mixed with the audience asking a number of pointed questions:

If jazz is the broom that Africans jumped over to become Americans, what is hip-hop?

Have you ever lost your mind?

How do you feel about white people in hip-hop?

How do you feel about women in hip-hop?

Name a demographic.

If you could ask Jay-Z one question, what would it be?

The audience, filtering in to find their seats, stumble tongue-tied over the questions, trying to give answers. The questions cycle around again and again. I suspect that they will prove relevant to the imminent performance. One young man gives a good answer to the “what do you feel about the white people in hip-hop” question. “I think that’s cool. It’s all about culture, man, and not about race…” Well said. It is a white kid who answered. Later, faces projected on the three video screens give their answers to these questions. “If jazz was the broom that Africans jumped over to become Americans, hip-hop is the [club African Americans] used to start knocking things down…”

Within the first several minutes, Bamuthi Joseph has introduced the themes that will dominate the rest of the performance: family, commitment and identity, which contribute to an ongoing personal struggle of conscience and consciousness.

Bamuthi Joseph is intent on proving a definition of hip hop that includes spoken word, music, dance and film. To a large degree he succeeds. Rapid-fire changes in mood and movement correspond to the kind of loose, improvisational style of a street performance, whether it be rap, dance or beatboxing. Bamuthi Joseph pops, locks and breaks and then abruptly goes into slow-motion. “This is what it’s like before I fall,” he says, bending backwards.

If you lose your mind, what jumps in to take its place?

The stories that create the spine of the break/s come from Bamuthi Joseph’s travels to Africa, Japan, Wisconsin, San Franciso, Cuba and Haiti. Early on, he relates his experience at a Vodoun ceremony in Haiti which he was attending, and wherein he lost consciousness. Because of exhaustion, he believes; but others are convinced he has been possessed. Thus his theme of fractured identity is introduced. “Double consciousness” is mentioned as a state of being later in the evening, and choosing identity over love forms much of the crisis of the middle and final section of the play. For Bamuthi Joseph, commitment involves an intolerable sacrifice of personal identity. He understands how intractable and self-defeating this is: “When you’re spinning on your head you must commit, or you’ll break your neck.” But he cannot integrate the segments of his identity. They remain divided. So he jumps back and forth between them with lightning speed and without transition.

Aesthetic concerns mingle with personal crises. What is form? And what is the proper form for hip-hop?

“I’m descended from slaves, and if you tell me to just ‘get over it’ I will KILL you…” This moment is the emotional nadir of the evening. The abrupt switch from the smiling, good natured dancer, moving with easy grace and riffing on Prince, into an ominous thug is instantaneous, like a stinging slap on skin that expects a caress. It is also Bamuthi Joseph’s bravest moment—braver even that his self-lacerating confessions about the failure of his relationship and his lover’s abandonment or his callow young reaction to meeting Jay-Z. My knee-jerk reaction is denial. That has nothing to do with me. But then, it seeps in, like icy flood water, to unsettle me profoundly. Only courageous individuals can stand up and say, “I’m mad as hell, and I have every good reason to be. Deal with it.” This isn’t socially acceptable. The ego naturally represses rage, for it is self-defeating and dangerous. However, Bamuthi Joseph has traveled into his shadow to retrieve this truth, and produced it to glow in the darkened theater like radium. But this rage, though it is real and it is bedrock, is not the foundation upon which Bamuthi Joseph has built his life or this piece of theater. It is merely part of the mix, just another scratch.

It is magic that Bamuthi Joseph gives his audience. His search for form is laudatory, and he has found it. Film gives context, movement energy, music medicine, and stories give meaning. Hip hop is the alchemy that transforms pain, rage, and confusion into transcendent gold.

Here’s a little slideshow:

the break/s: a mixtape for stage by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
runs now through July 12, 2009
at A Contemporary Theatre
700 Union Street, Seattle
Ticket office: 206-292-7676

the break/s: a mixtape for stage
Written and performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Directed by Michael John Garces
With DJ Excess and Soulati