“it’s no longer just about the biography”
by Anna Alves
NPN Re-Creation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “Word Becomes Flesh”
When Bay Area Theatre director Ellen Sebastian Chang sat down with artist, author and father Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Sarah Guerra, Program Director at La Peña Cultural Center, a lively conversation ensued about the remounting of his now-classic Word Becomes Flesh
, Black fatherhood, hip-hop aesthetics, artistic and audience transformations, and the role of the National Performing Network (NPN) in artistic development.
Word Becomes Flesh
is a series of letters from father to unborn son, and specifically, unwed father to unborn son,” Bamuthi said. “It serves, through poetry, music, and dance, as a look at pregnancy from the perspective of the father.”
It originally premiered in November 2003 at the Alice Arts Center (Oakland, CA) and subsequently toured through 2007 to many venues, including NPN Partners. “We’ve taken the opportunity to redress and remount the piece as a group work…now working with five bodies on stage, as well as a DJ…It still is a coming of age story, but now there are young men between 19 and 28 who are sharing the story, and it’s no longer just about the biography, but it really does explore the universal themes that I think we all can access, because we all have a birth story.”
It’s so emotional for me, because the piece was conceived not long after my son was conceived, and was born not so long after my son was born. So the length of time between the premiere of the piece and this moment coincides with my son’s life…It was also, I think, revelatory for audiences, because we were unabashed in executing hip-hop aesthetics in the conveyance of this story. So it wasn’t just a way into African America, or into fatherhood, or into deconstructed tropes of patriarchy. It was also a pathway into hip-hop and hip-hop culture in a new way.
Guerra inserted, “In the early 2000s, hip-hop theatre was so brand new, and nobody really knew what it was. It was still being formed. And it still is very young, and it still is being formed.”
Bamuthi added, “One of the important things about this remounting and this relationship is that hip-hop theatre to this point is still very much identified with the body and voice of the creator of the work. I don’t think there have been many, if any, transpositions of a hip-hop theatre work from the body of its original creator to other bodies.”
“When we first started talking about it,” Guerra said, “that first question was, ‘Well, how can it really be remade? How can it be remounted?’”
“The story might be specific, though fictionalized at times, to my experience,” Bamuthi continued, “but the energy, the relationship, the rites of passage I think that we all go through in coming to some kind of final encounter, to engaging that threshold between child or boy and man, is something that I know everyone in the ensemble can access very easily and very viscerally.”
“Transformational too, in the genre of hip-hop theatre,” Chang added.
“I think for hip-hop audiences, it presents an interesting kind of ontological challenge,” Bamuthi posited. “How do audiences apply the concept of authenticity to what is clearly a fiction for those that are presenting the narrative? So I just think that it’s wide open.”
As for NPN’s role, Guerra said, “It’s very artist-driven… They really offer a lot of tools and are extremely supportive.”
Bamuthi concluded: I don’t think that I’d have a career in the arts without NPN, not only providing financial resources, but vocabulary, and infrastructure, and a space where partner organizations can share information as well as other resources. And I tell MCs and dancers and spoken word artists—because that’s the world that I come from— that if they have any kind of interest in taking their work beyond a 5 or 15 or 20 minute poetry set, that [this] is really the avenue to explore, in terms of expansion and education and the partners in the NPN network…God bless them [La Peña] and NPN, not just for me, but for an entire generation of us, I think, that have found ourselves because that pathway was created.
Word Becomes Flesh will tour to Dance Place January 8-9 2011, to the Painted Bride in Philadelphia June 3-4, La Peña / Youth Speaks co-production between July 18-23, and at the Hecho en Califas Festival / Living Word Festival in November 2011.