Monday, September 24, 2012

Color Coded: The Walker Art Center’s latest commission, "red, black & GREEN: a blues," unites art, social activism

Guttural grunts, low singing, and enthusiastic spoken word greeted attendees at the William and Nadine McGuire Theater last weekend while they walked on stage around an ingeniously layered set. As they did so, activist and spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and his fellow cast members began to weave their story of activism through art together.
The Walker Art Center’s latest commission, red, black & GREEN: a blues, is the performance version of found object sculpture. Cast members utilize ordinary objects such as butcher knives and dominoes to punctuate the verbal part of their performance, and each specialized in a different art (although they all participated in each): dance, song, storytelling, and spoken word.
red, black & GREEN’s text is similarly a mash-up. Part verse, part biography and part storytelling, it had the feel of an essay collection brought to fictional life. Colored themes united the narrative, which was broken into three parts for each city it was set in (Oakland, New York, Austin). Green played the largest part for Joseph’s work of bringing the sustainability movement to poor urban areas; black symbolized the racial challenges Joseph faces for himself, his organization and the people he works with; and red, common humanity.
Joseph’s spoken word and message were lyrically powerful. Honest, thoughtful and complex, he didn’t shy away from anger, self-doubt or a host of other easy to ignore emotions in his monologue. Although I’m sure that at least the bulk of his piece was scripted, it had a spontaneous feel, and I desperately hope he returns to Minneapolis for a spoken word performance someday.
His fellow performers were also inspired. Traci Tolmaire’s recitations beautifully matched her methodical choreography, and she imbued red, black & GREEN with a warm feminine perspective. Tommy Shepherd and Theaster Gates provided lovely percussive and melodic backgrounds to the spoken performances.
The set was comprised of four separate “shanties” that connected to form one larger structure, as well as re-formed into multiple variations on the main set. Each shanty was covered with familiar objects- televisions, rocking chairs, boxes, tools – the things a humble home or a building in progress would likely contain. In constant movement (as the text constantly shifted between locations and conversations), these disparate pieces dovetailed nicely with the story’s complexity.
It was also nice to see the Walker host a more accessible performance than some of its other abstract material. I like to think of it as a hamburger vs. foie gras sort of performance: while both are delicious, which do you normally crave? red, black & GREEN still delivered modern, edgy content, but was refreshingly refrained from being intentionally obtuse.
Art often collides with social activism, and it is inspiring to see it so clearly and lovingly united as it was in red, black & GREEN. If Marc Bamuthi Joseph returns to Minneapolis, watch out for him – whatever color he paints in, he’s the real deal.
+ Learn more about Marc Bamuthi Joseph and his work at lifeisliving.org.