Marc Bamuthi Joseph | Interview
An actor-dancer-poet-teacher unpacks his latest performance and gets to the heart of what kids in poor communities face.
On Leap Day, Marc Bamuthi Joseph traveled directly from the San Francisco International Airport to the corner of a large conference table in Chicago, in the offices of the Museum of Contemporary Art. From April 12–14, the MCA’s theater presents red, black and GREEN: a blues, Joseph’s interdisciplinary performance and collaboration with artist Theaster Gates, who designed its moving set. Before the final show, during an afternoon event called SHareOUT, that set becomes the domain of six local youth groups for creative expression: Kuumba Lynx, YOUmedia, Young Chicago Authors, the MCA’s Creative Agency and the Better Boys Foundation’s LAB programs for filmmaking and community gardening.
In addition to numerous other gigs—and his big new one, director of performing arts at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—Joseph has organized Life Is Living eco-festivals in city parks around the U.S. Interviews, films, murals and poetry generated at four sites including Uptown’s Clarendon Park became the source material for a blues, which looks at intersections between environmental concerns and communities of color. To quote the MCA’s press release, a blues “express[es] the challenge of living green where violent crime and poor education pose a more imminent danger than ecological crisis.”
There’s “a great path of relationship between the formation of [a blues], the organized model which we call the ‘creative ecosystem,’ and the performance of the work,” Joseph told me across the corner of that table. Read on for his fascinating explanation of what that means.
As one of the cities that gave birth to a blues, how is Chicago represented in the performance?
The first 15 minutes are inspired by events that happened here. And so bringing it back around makes a lot of sense.
What happens during Life Is Living festivals and what were the goals when you started producing them in 2008?
Their purpose was to draw attention to and promote environmental literacy in underserved or under-resourced neighborhoods. My primary desire, coming from a poetic background, was to do our best to expand the vocabulary and paths of access to environmental consciousness and practice. In Chicago in 2009, there were record numbers of public schoolchildren that were murdered so, here, it made more sense to focus not on “green” as the central codifier of environmental literacy, but on life. The module was, “if you’re brown you can’t go green until you hold a respect for black life.” In Uptown, the festival included a second line for those who were departed, but also a graffiti battle [and] performances on solar-powered stages. We worked with Kuumba Lynx and the MCA and other partners, and that changed the organizing model of the festival as well. So this city was really a fulcrum, because in New York and in Oakland prior to coming to Chicago, [Life Is Living] really just landed in a park and threw an event [that was] young and hip-hop–based, and had all these avatars of green [living] in central locations.
And they were all one-day events?
All single-day. So beginning [in Chicago], we changed the model to take this question, “What sustains life in my community?” and ask more than 30 different partners to respond. Their responses became the palette and the canvas for the festival that ensued. Instead of doing all the programming [for Life Is Living], we relied on community partners to take over and to demonstrate to one another what it meant to work in-ecosystem. Which tied a certain level of diversity to the environmental question, beyond play-back theater about the environment, beyond issuing water bottles. There was a free-breakfast program and we planted trees on that day. But there was also a soccer tournament and a skate park. Action, sports, politics, youth work, sustainable food, along with all of these performance aesthetics: All of that really focused here [in Chicago].