"Yes, Yes, Y'all!": A Conversation with Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Interview by Laura Brueckner
Just looking at Marc Bamuthi Joseph's resume is enough to give most people jetlag. Originally from Queens, NYC, Marc has toured all over the world as a performer, choreographer and teacher. He's received national and international attention as a spoken word artist (National Poetry Slam champion) and playwright, with not one but two pieces premiering at the Humana Festival of New American Plays: his solo piece, the break/s (2007) and Chicago, Sudan (2011). And he has two children.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph (front) and Tommy Shepherd in Joseph's red, black and Green: a blues. Photo: Bethanie Hines
As passionate about civic engagement as he is about art, Joseph also cofounded Life is Living, an urban community activism festival that began in Oakland and has since expanded to five cities nationwide, and Youth Speaks, a major Bay Area nonprofit youth arts and empowerment program. Currently serving as director of performing arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), where he also runs a number of audience access and artist granting programs, Joseph's body of work affirms that artistic collaboration and community empowerment are ultimately the same thing: an act of faith.
What brought you to the Bay Area?
I got a teaching fellowship to teach English and West African dance at a small, independent school in Marin [called] Branson. I did that for two years.
The nature of the school was such that a bunch of well-connected families sent their kids there, and I guess one of the kids went home raving to somebody; the next thing I knew, George Soros contacted me through an intermediary, saying, "I've heard about your techniques. Will you come to Bosnia and work with Kosovar gypsies, Croats, and Serbian kids and figure out some middle ground through poetry and spoken word?" James [Kass] and I did this work in the former Yugoslavia for a month and some change, then we were like, "Let's do this in the States." That's how the organization Youth Speaks got started.
I have worked with, I don't know, half a million kids since then. I don't think that's much of an exaggeration, actually. [Laughs.] My graduate work is in education, so I continue to be committed to that work. But almost everything that I do is a slight veering from the traditional path, or traditional methods of execution.
What do you mean by "traditional"?
Literacy isn't typically thought of through an urban or oral lens, and so the notion of a reciprocal and transformative ethic inscribed inside of literacy isn't a traditional metric. But it's very much what I think. Populace pedagogy, or liberatory pedagogy—Paolo Freire's work—is about transformation, self-discovery and agency. But that's not what you'll find at your conventional K-through-12 public education place.
So, a dynamic of reciprocity and exchange was a part of your creative process from the beginning.
Yeah. I think some of it is African-descended-in-the-United-States-ness. A lot of it is hip-hop. The music was in my headphones but the culture was everywhere. And the culture is most keenly manifest in reflection, in relationship; whether it's the cypher or the battle or just the call and response—what I call the "Yes, yes, y'all!" That's part of who we are. It doesn't matter how much swag or style or game you have; you have to impose that swag or style or game, with other people, on somebody. Otherwise, it's like if the tree falls in the forest...you see what I'm saying? If your game is hot but no one's there to hear it, then it doesn't make a sound.
Regardless of discipline, your projects embrace collaboration as both creative process and end goal. What do you look for in collaborators?
Inspiration and humility. The way that I collaborate leaves all parties in the dark for some period of time. My choreographer, Stacy Prince, I don't know if she's choreographed to music yet. [Laughs.] I'll say to her, "Okay, there's going to be four sections, and they're all gospels, and one is the gospel according to race, and one is the gospel according to possession, and one is the gospel according to New Orleans…" You know, make some shit up. And she'll be like, "All right." So we learn the stuff based on these large containers. Then we'll be in the studio, and in the middle of it I'll be like, "Oh! That's: [speaking rhythmically] 'two brown boys, too proud to pros-per, too patient, too proud to con-quer.'" Or she'll do some movement, and I'll be like, "Keep doing that!!" And it just fits.
All that comes energetically from being inspired. Like, "You're dope, let's get in a room together and let's see what happens." All these collaborative processes are affirmations of public intellect in common space that is held by a desire to make the world better and bigger.
In one trailer for red, black and Green: a blues, project collaborator and scenic designer Theaster Gates says some pretty amazing things about belief.
Yeah. In that same speech, in that same breath, he's making a really poetic defense of transdisciplinary thinking and output. He says, "Belief in advance of any particular material is the beginning of my practice. Material output is just a byproduct of belief." And that's the thesis for all of this. Ultimately, everything we do is a byproduct of belief in something.
And this goes back to inspiration and humility. Because driven from that place, there is inherently a kind of empathy and compassion for the belief of the other that makes it all work. Without that, everything that I'm describing falls apart.
You call Oakland your adopted hometown. What does that mean for you?
I moved to the Bay Area in '97, and moved to Oakland in 2001 and 2014. So I've pretty much spent as much time in the Bay Area as I did in New York. When folks ask me where I'm from, I say I'm from New York, but I live in town. When, let's say, another periodical or institution wants to locate me, I am located in Oakland, California.
Representing the Bay Area on a national stage is really important to me. Coming from New York, there is a sense that anything west of New Jersey is some exotic...place out there. The famous New Yorker cartoon is really how we think about the rest of the world. To recalibrate that cartography through statesmanship or ambassadorship or through public voice, that is really important to me. Also, as a curator at the Yerba Buena center, I feel like it is my role both to pull in as much art from around the planet as possible and to affirm the excellence that happens here.
Are you still involved with the Life is Living festivals?
Yeah. We meet every second Saturday of the month at Little Bobby Hutton Park in Oakland. "We" is me and Brett Cook and Hodari Davis and Joan Osato. The four of us are the primary engines. Brett is the head pedagogue-in-chief. Joanie is the perception muscle. Hodari is the lead organizer. I would say I'm the primary curator of activity in the community.
There has been consistent progress made as the festival becomes increasingly popular. The attendance of the festival now is nearly 10,000 people. In one day. I know, it's bananas. [Laughs.] Now, the mayor is showing up, our district supervisors are showing up. And it's not just a pit stop. It's an opportunity for them to listen.
Here's one crazy thing: this year, we did Life is Living, and I cut out of there to come give the curtain speech [at YBCA] for Bill T. Jones and SITI company. And you know, it was so weird—there were so many people at the park in Oakland. But when Deborah [Cullinan, current YBCA executive director] asked, "How many people here were at Life is Living?" one person was like, 'Woo! Woo!' like, waaay in the back. So, yeah, it's a totally different reality in many ways. That's been fun and interesting to navigate.
Lots of art makers and funders have been focusing on audience and/or community participation as a dimension of art practice. One result is that a wider range of activities are being put forth as "capital-A" Art. Is there a line for you between "Art" and other modes of creative exchange?
I think that the worst thing you can do is be dogmatic about creative expression. Some of the teenagers that I work with at Youth Speaks may not necessarily think about "Art" or perform in professional spaces, but were and are still transformed by what they make, what they made. As a performance-based artist, I'm most drawn to work that's in the body. I am particularly attracted to art that sweats, cries, bleeds. I want the visceral. So when I see that, let's say, in public life executed by citizen intellectuals, whether I put a big "A" on it or not doesn't matter.
The play's the thing, yeah? But there's so many ways to play. I won't say "elitist," but certainly the kind of dogmatic isolationist approach to who has exposure to art will ultimately lead to the death of culture. In terms of the evolution of species, we have to adapt.
Before bringing you on board as director of performing arts, YBCA commissioned several of your plays: Scourge, the break/s and red, black and Green, a blues. How did this relationship begin?
There was a woman that was the executive director for about three months, Loris Bradley. She was based in Houston at DiverseWorks, and I think first became aware of my work then. So the conversation started [there]. She took over [at YBCA] but then got sick, and was here just long enough to make me a Wattis Artist-in-Residence. We applied for a Gerbode Grant together for Scourge; we got that grant, and you know, nothing makes love like money. [Laughs.]
Then the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, which had commissioned my work Word Becomes Flesh, came to San Francisco and presented here. I think that's the first time that Ken [Foster, YBCA executive director 2003-2013] saw me perform, and then it was like, "Ohhh, okay."
There was a practice [at YBCA] of presenting work in a 50/25/25 proportion. Fifty percent of the work that was presented here came from outside of the country, a quarter came from around the country, and a quarter was local. Margaret Jenkins Dance, and Keith Hennessey, and me—a number of us, for a while, fit into that. Angela Maddox, the performing arts curator, and Ken Foster had some faith that really came together around the break/s, I would say. Then that stepped up again with red, black & Green. I premiered red, black & Green on a Thursday, then came and interviewed for my position the following Monday.
After the reviews came in.
Yeah. I think that helped. Maybe, I don't know. Who trusts artists? [Laughs.]
Would you say the proportion is still 50/25/25?
I don't have that goal. It's a goal to work more holistically within the ecology in ways that aren't locked into that kind of math. Now our goals are: we activate the building, we activate the ecology, and we create and sustain a department that activates both places.
The Bay Area Now triennial is coming up, and we have 16 different artists of different disciplines performing. We're doing something with Boots Riley; he's rethinking two-dimensional performance and creating more of a festival atmosphere in performance of his album. Then we're presenting Capacitor, and Dohee Lee, and Christine Marie. [In November] we're doing this work called 93 'til with a bunch of local emcees, and Ken Choy, who was just on the cover of The Guardian; Ensemble Mik Nawooj is going to be the house band. It's all young emcees performing work from 1993. That was the year this place opened. It's also the year I graduated from high school, so it's like, "Oh yeah, dudes!"
We also do the 50 Cent Tabernacle, which is five dance classes that are almost free, in one day. This Saturday [March 15], the first class is Brazilian hip-hop; the second class is New Orleans second line. The third class is Tango. The fourth class is Salsa. Then the fifth class is Bhangra. You know, all dances from the global South.
Normally, if you want to take a dance class, it's 10 bucks, 15 bucks, 20 bucks. And you'd pay $35 to take a master class. This is 50 cents for as many classes [as you can take]. That happens like six, seven, eight times a year.
We have the YBCAway program, where we do microcommissions for as many as 20 different artists from around the Bay Area that are not presented at Yerba Buena Center. We give them some cash and rehearsal space, and some marketing support. There are also a number of local artists that we have commissioned in a larger way, whether those performances happen here or not. Then we have our creative ecosystem, which invites, at this point, hundreds of folks to make thought together, and perhaps to make objects together.
These are ways of activating the local ecology that I think transcend the bounds of, "We're presenting you for three shows." You know what I mean? We want to be in relationship with, to inspire and activate relationship.
In terms of this sense of "relationship," how do you think Bay Area theatre artists can effect change in the local ecology? The local community?
I think it has to be, if not intrinsic, then integral. You know, very often theatres think of community activity as the Q&A after the show; and if you're not built [to do deeper community engagement], then don't do it. Maybe I'm talking about authenticity, maybe I'm talking about integrity; I think mostly I'm talking about consistency. Let's start from an honest and consistent place.
In terms of deeper participation, a thing that I like to think about, particularly for the creative ecosystem, is what happens after a really good play. The lobby tends to be packed; no one wants to leave. With [YBCA's] creative ecosystem, we take that energy, and we reposition it from a post-performance experience to a pre-performance experience. Not like a half-hour, or an hour before the show, but a year before the show. Engage the playwright at the moment of inquiry, through facilitated dialogue that navigates not only your experience, but your capacity to invite others into the experience as well.
We can pinpoint problems along the lines of economic inequality, of cultural access. But I think that we're trying to solve things, particularly in the arts, in either a hypercapitalist or narrow pedagogical way. And then there's the thing of, "How do I get more young people to the theatre? How do I get more young, brown people to the theatre? Oh, I know, I'll get a young, brown playwright!" That's not the work. Because you're leading with the object, it's not leading with the relationship.
So the short answer is [laughs]...cultivate relationships. You want to be inclusive? Cultivate inclusivity as part of the collaborative process.
Any family in the arts?
No family in the arts, apart from my kids. My girl is eight; my girl is crafty. Oh my God, she'll cook anything up. She'll take this [gestures with an invisible object] and weave it together and put it in her hair and then take it out, open it up, then make it a microphone and close it down and open it back up and draw on it. And my boy is 12. He's a writer/poet/filmmaker; he loves making stop-motion animation. But my mother, her mother, my father's father: all teachers. I come more from that line, from the art of education as opposed to the art of performance or visual expression.
Do you remember the first artist or performance that really moved you?
I definitely had an Alvin Ailey moment. I definitely had a Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing moment. But man, probably Boogie Down Productions. I grew up in hip-hop. I was born in the same place and the same time as the culture was. So Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One, Chuck D...the artists that first taught me about art were rappers, particularly Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy. Because their work was so politically charged, and in their work is this sense of accountability, connecting what we were building in New York to global movements: the articulation of divestment from South Africa as not only a political strategy, but as a political imperative. The introduction of a Black Nationalist ethic. Like, I didn't know who Louis Farrakhan was until I heard Public Enemy speak his name. That was my introduction, because it certainly wasn't in history [class], it wasn't in the newspapers that I was reading.
But, you know, I grew up on Broadway. In the fourth and fifth grade, I'd go to the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway—that was my second home—and I'd play "hide and go seek." Now, you haven't lived till you've played hide-and-go-seek in an empty Broadway house, but that's a whole other story. [Laughs.] So it's not like I wasn't privy to high-end information, with high-end stakes, it's just that the information that was most immediate to me all came in the form of hip-hop music and culture.
On Broadway, I was understudying Savion Glover. As a child, that might've been the response to your question: "Oh, working with Savion." But it wasn't working with him, it was him giving me the Boogie Down Productions tape when I was 11.
Whoa—you were already performing on Broadway at that age?
Yeah. I was an understudy. I'd show up to the theatre, and if somebody didn't have a broken leg, I got to leave. Often what that meant was I could go see some other show. You know, I was this cute 10-year-old. The people at the stage door couldn't say no to me. [Laughs.] But that's what fed my approach to education and then everything else. And quite honestly, made it so that Broadway, for me, wasn't necessarily a goal.
It was more like a means to an end.
That's how I think about art practice. It is amazing in and of itself, but [there's also] the utility of art to serve a different kind of function; an educational practice is still present. It's all a means to an end.
Is there anything that, given your current schedule and responsibilities, you wish you could do more of? Writing? Performing?
Well, I don't get to sleep as much as I'd like, that's about it. [Laughs.] I was telling my son, "Man, I haven't slept more then seven hours since you were born." And he was like, "What?"
He's getting all the sleep you're not.
That's what it is. But I'm writing a libretto for the Philadelphia Opera, and for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra right now, and a play for South Coast Rep. Red, black and Green still tours; that's not like four, six, eight months in a row of touring; that's more intermittent. And we're going to bring red, black and Green back [to YBCA], probably in the fall of '15.
I do these spot residencies where performance happens, in different places around the country and around the world, so that doesn't feel like it's missing. I'm really turned on by intentional community design, I really am. It's a great creative outlet, so I don't feel like I'm not being creative.
And you know, I'll leave here [YBCA], I'll go to my parent/teacher conference with my third-grader's teacher, I'll have dinner with my family, I'll come back here and do the curtain speech. I'll meet with playwrights. I'm meeting with Chinaka Hodge for breakfast in the morning; I'm directing her show. I'll finish my libretto in the morning, I'll work on my budget for the next year in the afternoon, I'll have dinner with my family, I'll do the curtain speech.
Sounds like a pretty great balance.
Yeah. Again, it's all a by-product of belief. Nothing feels extraneous, including when I veg out and play "Words with Friends" on my future machine. I am full-time me. It doesn't feel like I'm part-time anything.