February 16, 2009

Tellin' It Like It Is: Spoken Word in Ithaca

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It took a little bit of cajoling and self-conscious laughter at first. But by the end of the evening, each time Marc Bamuthi Joseph ended a stream of rhapsodic, rhythmic poetry with “word word,” the audience, as if cued by magic, came in with their response: “word word.”
In In The Spoken World, presented by the Kitchen Theater last weekend, Bamuthi journeyed through dazzling landscape of movement and sound, in a poetic exploration of what it means to be a part of a race, a family, and a community.
His performance poetry sketches touched on being born to Haitian immigrants in Queens, the heartbreak of estrangement with his father, the revelation of becoming a father to a son who is Asian and Haitian, and the joy of being able “to discover a body of movement that I can fall into and jump into.”
And did he move. Leaping in and out of many roles and many voices, Bamuthi twirled like a ballerina, break-danced, clapped out the beat of West African dance — in tune with his snarky one-liners, hip-hop poetry, lyrical stories, and breath-taking verse.
Bamuthi is a National Poetry Slam champion who has worked with the Senegalese National Ballet, performed on Broadway, and toured around the world as a performer.
For Bamuthi, words are fluid and liquid, capable of being transformed into any shape and form. They rippled through his torso, enunciated with flawless waves. They took on the jerky texture of a D.J.’s scratching at a vinyl record. At quieter, stiller moments, they flowed like gentle, lyrical prayers.
“My pop stopped listening,” Bamuthi said, flaunting a jaunty, staccato tap-dance sequence in shiny black sneakers, “so I would play call-and-response around my feet and floor.”
His performance sketches included snapshots of performing arts shows for “artists from Africa,” in which he satirized the absurdity and pretension of artists that abuse and misuse European performance arts styles. Another sketch transported us to a hip-hop club in Tokyo, where filled with expectations of showing them “the real deal” — and hoping the crowd would receive the only black man in the club by elatedly parting like a sea — Bamuthi instead experienced being completely invisible in a sea of strangers.
Prince made an unexpected appearance when Bamuthi hit the spot with a hilarious impersonation of the pop and funk singer, bringing his voice down a few octaves to produce an oversexed “Dearly Beloved”-type voice. In the process, what was illustrated was that, just as the storyteller is a performer, identities are to some extent performed by choice.
He spread his arms, sweeping the audience into the vast expanse of African flatlands where he journeyed, joining his activist friend on a road trip. He talked about hip-hop dancing spontaneously to gaping and bewildered village communities to distract them from interrupting the complex cultural negotiations going on while his friend persuaded the village elders to stop genital mutilation of women.
Suddenly, he launched into sequence of rhythmic breathing, producing a sound that took on the harsh, hacking quality of uncontrolled weeping even while resembling the percussive, repetitive sound of cymbals.
For Bamuthi, the body is versatile as water. Because of the endless possibilities that it presents, it is a locus of poetic protest. “The colonies made it an offense punishable by death for an African to be in possession of noise-making instruments,” he said, majestically leaping through space and sending spectacular beads of sweat flying through the room. Despite this, “they had enough business sense not to divest their property of their value by chopping [off] their feet.” It was within this history of slavery and forced migration that the potential of the body became realized.
During the talkback session after the show, Bamuthi spoke about how his work was a continuation of a long oral tradition dating back to the tradition of “Negro spirituals.” Hip-hop comes out of “telling stories with your body, a percussive movement that is located inside the body.”
For Bamuthi, art is both a ritual as well as a form of pedagogy. He has taught creative writing, theater and sociology in universities including Stanford and the University of Wisconsin. He now works with emerging young artists on performance pieces that deconstruct the myths of race and color.
In the intimate space of the Kitchen Theater, Bamuthi moved and spoke, in hope of opening up a dialogue.
And if he was calling out to them, the audience was more than willing to answer.
“I don’t know anything about hip-hop,” a woman called out from the audience at the end of the show, “but your art is an answer to ancestral supplication.”
“What did she say?” another woman called out.
“She just offered me a prayer,” he said.
Word word.