Anywhere I’ve got even a shred of pull I’ve been talking up Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s show the break/s at the Museum of Contemporary Art for over a month. That being the case, I was a little disappointed, and surprised, to see the house only half-full for tonight’s opening of a three-night run. It’s especially a shame considering how well-crafted, entertaining and provocative (albeit gently so) the work is.
A ton has been said about this piece already; it premiered nearly a year ago at the Walker and Joseph will shortly be moving onto his next performance project, red black and green: a blues. It certainly has the feeling of being lived-in; the always-onstage trio of Joseph, MC Soulati and DJ Excess anticipate each others’ decisions beautifully and the technical design of the piece (which was an order of magnitude more intricate than I was expecting) had literally hundreds of cues, each executed to perfection.
I like my hip-hop buck naked, without ceremony or a campaign for its importance. Granted, I don’t find it “difficult,” although many people do. Joseph makes his assumptions of his audience explicit: Early in the break/s, he makes a clearly intentional yet flippant aside about doing his thing in a Major Cultural Institution and hints at having put one over on people convinced he can simultaneously be high art and hip-hop, although he seems also to be suggesting the ridiculousness of the divide. (Interestingly enough, there was a group in the audience of teenagers with one foot in juvenile hall and not much respect for, well, anything, much less Joseph’s stealthy slippages into references of ballet, Renaissance art and life in academia. He won them over, though, I think, as much as anyone could–still, the incongruity of it was jarring for me and no doubt rough for Joseph, who carried on powerfully regardless.) A friend of mine recently sent an email that I more or less agreed with:
Of what I’ve seen of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s, while I respect the intelligence and inspiration to meld words and movement I’ve never been thrilled by the self-referential, slightly self-aggrandizing, and hyper-awareness that many hip-hop poets and slammers have of the “cultural significance” of what they’re saying.
I prefer to be lulled, seduced, hypnotized, and transported as an audience member as opposed to preached to or lectured at, even if the preaching and lecturing are brilliant. Oftentimes the keeping-it-real-ness of it all can quickly become a construction that holds no real interest or value for me. I often find it lacking what I like the most about art and expression: Giving voice to the elusive, unimaginable, and impossible.
And so it bears saying that Joseph navigates this terrain with true skill: the break/s is not a show that one feels will disintegrate if brought into the flashing blue light of true street life, and the work I think rings true regardless of the venue. It is nuanced, very much so, and that being said it can’t be performed in just any old venue. One affecting moment, reliant on the controlled environment of the theater, finds him standing just behind a panel of light spanning the stage’s apron; as he speaks of the inner conflict unique to the African-American-as-descendant-of-slaves and the resultant flaring up of feelings of rage and revenge, he dips forward into the light, and backs out again, moving horizontally as though he’s snorkeling along a vertical surface, where the light is water and the audience (perhaps more diverse tonight than in many of his previous host venues) creatures of the deep he’s peering at from the other side of a divide as profound as the one between ocean and air.
Although seamless in execution the break/s at times rode a line for me between ingeniously-organized and meandering. He covers a lot of ground in 80 minutes: Racial identity, Tokyo, family, Minneapolis, class-consciousness, Africa, dreams, authenticity, Paris, history and a wicked impersonation of Prince that was everything I’d heard and more. It manages to stay together, but I think the adhesive is largely Joseph’s conviction and skill in the performance realm, and not necessarily a surgeon’s editorial approach. Which isn’t to say the tangents aren’t fun: The whole show, in fact, is wholly engaging and enjoyably unpredictable. There are also moments of piercing candor; Joseph may be one hell of a chameleon as a performer, but to his credit he doesn’t use this ability to hide from the audience or himself.
the break/s succeeds at nearly all of the ten thousand things it sets out to accomplish, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s performance was one of the strongest I’ve ever seen in an evening-length solo; the show repeats tonight and tomorrow at 7:30pm and tickets are available online here.