Since 2009, artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph has coproduced Life Is Living, a series of interdisciplinary festivals promoting environmental justice in underserved communities. They have taken place in Chicago, Houston, New York and Oakland. An accomplished spoken word and performance artist, educator and mentor, Joseph drew on his interactions and experiences during the festivals for “red, black & GREEN: a blues,” a performance piece examining the challenges of advocating green living to people who face more immediate problems than climate change.
The “choreopoem” features four performers—Joseph, artist Theaster Gates, dancer/actor Traci Tolmaire and musician Tommy Shepherd—and is directed by Michael John Garcés. Through mimes, dance, songs, rhythms and stories, the performers refer to African-American history, portray David Humphrey: contemporary black life, enact vignettes culled from the eco-festivals, and humorously parody the righteousness of environmental advocates (including Joseph himself), creating a collagelike narrative with universal significance.
The performance, as staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the most recent stop on its national tour, opened with the sound of a man singing a spiritual. Ushers directed the audience to join the man—who turned out to be Gates—and the other actors onstage, where the set consisted of a makeshift shotgun house divided into four portable parts. The performers rearranged and moved in and out of the sections throughout the piece, framing their monologues and movements while enthralling viewers even after they were cued to take their seats. Gates, who designed the structure, intended each section to correspond to a festival city, all of which were also represented in other ways. Some of Tolmaire’s monologues were in the character of the artist Rick Lowe, who founded the community revitalization initiative Project Row Houses in Houston’s historically black Third Ward, and references were made to Gates’s Dorchester Projects, a neighborhood redevelopment scheme, residency program and community arts hub on the South Side of Chicago.
Joseph, who did much of the speaking, told a recurring story involving a Sudanese woman he met at the eco-festival in Chicago: “Me and my do-gooder friends are greening the ghetto / I ask a mother about environment / She responds in the language of disaster / The culture of hazard / Summer climax of climate / 36 school kids gun blasted to the hereafter / her son was a witness that got dealt with before he could even think to snitch.” As conveyed by Joseph, the woman’s tragedy exemplifies the fraught reality of making the environmental movement accessible and relevant in historically blighted, disproportionately disadvantaged black America. Joseph reiterated, “If you brown, you can’t go green until you hold a respect for black life.”
Joseph also recounted a conversation with his son about Tupac Shakur and the Black Panthers—his attempt to instill respect for African-American history in a younger generation in the age of Obama. Joseph explained that his son, M’kai, was quick to connect the Panthers’ history in Oakland to his father’s festival there, which took place in a park named for Bobby Hutton. The correlation carried weight in the context of the performance. As M’kai identified his father’s hip-hop eco-event within a long history of African-American activism, “red, black & GREEN: a blues” posits environmental justice as the current iteration of African-American survival, portraying it as comprehensive and timeless cultural sustainability.
Photo: View of “red, black & GREEN: a blues,” 2012, showing (left to right) Mark Bamuthi Joseph, Tommy Shepherd, Theaster Gates and Traci Tolmaire; at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.