If you’ve ever tried to watch the rhythm of a storm, it probably looks something like Marc Bamuthi Joseph on stage. A week after Hurricane Sandy pounded parts of the Eastern seaboard, the New York-born, Oakland-based artist brought his play about being black in the green movement to Brooklyn’s wind-whipped masses. The city that never sleeps has been completely knocked out: trains are still down, gas lines are blocks long, and devastated families are still searching for refuge. The chaos has sparked a meaningful conversation about climate change just days before the country’s next presidential election.
But Joseph isn’t the type to preach. He laughingly chides himself for being a do-gooder, a hip-hop generation dad who’s learned that the most valuable mandate of all is to just listen. He’s also a celebrated performance artist and curator, an educator who casually talks to me about Frierean pedagogy while he’s walking around downtown Brooklyn hours before his new show, "red, black, and GREEN: a blues", at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Those of us who were lucky enough to see art during disaster turned out for what he called a "performed documentary" of years spent trying to build bridges between an often white environmental justice movement communities of color.
In many ways, that work began four years ago when Joseph helped found the annual "Life is Living" festival in Oakland, Calif. The goal of the festival was ostensibly to have fun and go green in the ‘hood. By all accounts, it worked: Mos Def, for example, performed on a solar-powered stage at West Oakland’s Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park. But the question then turned to sustainability and access. How do you create spaces to talk about urban gardens and gun violence? Material poverty and spiritual prosperity? The festivals then spread to other cities like Chicago, Houston, and New York, where more alliances were formed and similar questions were asked.
In this work of poetry, dance, and song, Joseph and his fellow cast members physically invite new stakeholders to the table. It’s an interactive, intimate, and sometimes hilarious look at the uneasiness that comes with that realization that sometimes the most carefully built bridges can fall down. We spoke about his new play.
Tell me a bit more about how "Life is Living" informed this play. What similarities did you see in the cities that you visited?
I’ll start with the festival itself, which began with an outcome driven agenda and transitioned to process-driven protocol. At first the idea was, ‘put the festivals on, people will come, the festivals will be agents in transforming behaviors that we might more closely associate with environmental responsibility and sustainability in general. And what we found was that a festival wasn’t going to buy people solar panels. Also it did provide platforms for education and partnerships.
But I think what we found was that the strongest aspect of the festival were the partnerships of the folks who we invited to present. Also, that the stronger part of the festival was inquiry-based, which is to say that we asked folks, "What sustains life in your community?" And that question was in the end a lot more provocative and powerful than the response. The laboratory, having folks come together in conceptual and virtual, and physical space around a point of inquiry ended up being more powerful than the festival itself. There was a longer shelf life to the activity because the partnerships were able to be sustained even when the festival itself was over. What we left behind, not only in Oakland but in the other cities that we visited, were these cohorts of that we call "creative ecosystems" that were built around these critical inquiry points.
So "red, black, and green: a blues" is a performed documentary of that process. It looks at the character and temperature of these different ecosystems, the people that we met and the emotional connections that we made with people, not just a behind-the-scenes look at the production. In that way I think that it’s a pretty special and emotional survey of the African American temperament as it relates to this climactic global issue.
You mentioned to the New York Times that you wanted to give folks "multiple points of access" to these issues of environmental justice. Can you talk about what that means.
Yeah, so I’m walking down Fulton Mall right now and there is a line that goes as far as I can see. And the line is of folks waiting for buses to get shuttled back to Manhattan. That’s a point of engagement with climate crisis. I think what we find is that if it’s the BP spill, or if it’s Hurricane Katrina, we look at that and we say ‘that’s how I understand myself relative to climate crisis.’ On the flip side, the mechanics of environmental responsibility are also fairly narrow. If I drive a hybrid vehicle, if I shop locally or eat organic foods. But I think that there are different ways of looking at sustainability, and also different ways of thinking about environmental responsibility that are more pedestrian, that aren’t as visible because they’re not inside of the conventional literacy of environmental stewardship.
We try to look at things as basic as loving your family as being part of a matrix of sustainability. That love of family translates to the healthy family structure. In terms of the social matrix of sustainability, keeping a healthy family is actually environmentally responsible. It’s a leap that we don’t make because environmental responsibility requires so much direct action. But there are all these sociological factors that are in play that I think are underreported that I think should also be part of our collective sustainability measures.
I think part of "Life is Living" seeks to do and what this piece seeks to do is reframe the environmental question to one that has both sociological import and one that has emotional import. We want to reframe environmental consciousness in terms of emotional and collective health and look at all the things that we do to sustain one another. It’s part of the environmental matrix. Speaking as a 30-something black male with two kids, I look around my community and I see that there is an obsession with death. I look at Sandy and I see a hundred people have died in the course of a week, and I look at Chicago and I see the unprosecuted homicides of black-on-black violence. One is a natural disaster and one is an unnatural disaster, but both need attention. Both are environmental crises.
This play is really engaging, and not at all didactic. Can you talk to me a little bit about how your experiences as a teacher, as someone who goes out in the community who actually has interactions with people? Can you talk to me about how that informs your approach to this work?
I would say that both are Freire pedagogy at work. At the heart of popular education, at the heart of contemporary popular education, is beginning kids’ language construction in a more formulaic way to construct a new world. How do I use my language or how do I develop my language that speaks my world into existence? I think that rather than implicating or advancing strategies that fit somebody else’s matrix of environmental success, part of what we’re doing is inviting folks to determine sustainability on their own terms. That’s not to say we’re advocating against alternative energy sources — quite the opposite. But what we’re saying to kids is, "You know that bike you tricked out? How you put hella different color foil in the spokes? That’s not just being fly. That’s also being environmentally responsible." So it’s naming the things that are present in our behavior that also fit into the nature scene, and maybe re-inviting disparate groups to kind of name this on their own terms.