IOWA CITY — Hancher Auditorium kicked off of its 40th anniversary season in ambitious fashion with the presentation of “Word Becomes Flesh,” by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. It opened Thursday night (9/20/12) in the University of Iowa’s Space Place Theatre, and repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday (9/21/12).
The work has been touring around the country, well-supported by presenters and foundations, and is an expansion of an earlier work by Joseph.
The play’s story is told by five young black men, all of whom speak directly to the audience in slam-poetry style: a muscular style of address. This poetry is not subtle, but has its own lyricism, its own impact: the words are like pile drivers breaking rocks.
The performance style is earnest, vulnerable, clearly spoken. Billed as a “choreopoem,” its most effective aspect is the speaking of the words. The choreography is tailored to the skills of the performers and offers a bit of break dancing, a bit of Ailey-style modern dance. The music is terrific, in the hands of a talented tuntablist.
But, it’s all about the words:
“Every day begins
with a black man
on the run.
As soon as the sun threatens to rise in the morning sky
Dark grayish blues orange-red hues
Early to rise, early to run.
And orange-red hues are used effectively in the theatrical lighting for the performance. We enter into a night club atmosphere, with hot color on the cyclorama. Later on the silhouette of a performer appears to catch on fire, burning him up in the passionate atmosphere.
The poetry at times reaches out for rhapsody, as one of the young men speaks of his lover:
“I am nearly 23
She moves across the continent
We struggle through
Our love a castle built for revelation
She is my Ailey dancer in perpetual flight
My night come to life
The evening is centered on “performed letters from a father to an unborn son.” As the father confronts the world his son will inherit, and the responsibility for that son that the father will have. The author seeks to bring the experience of young black men in America into focus, as the father imagines a painful, uncertain future for his son. The poetry of Langston Hughes, the fiction of Ralph Ellison, the history of Harriet Tubman and Nelson Mandela help to define the world that is ahead.
The young audience for Thursday’s performance was remarkably attentive: not texting, not taking pictures, not moving. They stood up instantly to applaud the performance. This is the kind of event that can act as epiphany, as a life-changing event: not only for what it says, but how it says it. The word “relevant” seems puny here. I only wish the play could run for a month, and that every high school and college student could experience it. It is “necessary” art, not for an elite, but for all of us.
For the record, the devoted young actors are Dahlak Brathwaite, Daveed Diggs, Kahlil Anthony, Michael Wayne Turner III and B. Young. The turntablist is Dion Reiner-Guzman. Support by the Natonal Endowment for the Arts American Masterpieces is entirely justified by their work, and by the artistry of Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
Congratulations to the Hancher staff for bringing this company to Iowa. As has become customary for Hancher, this talented ensemble has had quality contact in an educational fashion with both town and gown. The influence of this work will extend far beyond the borders of Johnson County. A fitting way to begin Hancher’s 40th anniversary!
Freelance reviewer Wallace Chappell of Iowa City served as Hancher’s executive director from 1986 to 2001. After that, he moved to New York City to head up the American Ballet Theatre for three years, then the Paul Taylor Dance Company for four. He has since returned to Iowa City, where he is again immersing himself in Eastern Iowa’s arts scene.
- “Word Becomes Flesh” by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
- 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20 and 21, 2012
- Space Place Theater, North Hall, University of Iowa, 20 W. Davenport St., Iowa City
- Tickets: $10 to $35, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu
- Information: Hancher.uiowa.edu/events