Some directors break down the fourth wall; some never erect walls in the first place. Marc Bamuthi Joseph belongs to the latter school. Over the last decade he's produced a spate of spoken-wordy, dance-driven, theatrical pieces, beginning with De/Cipher in 2001, and following in short order with 2002's No Man's Land, which paved the way for several evening-length "choreopoems": Word Becomes Flesh, Scourge, and the break/s. For the last three years, he's also mounted a series of festivals in different parts of the country under the banner "Living Word."
The main purpose of these events, Joseph says, is to bring environmentalism to inner-city neighborhoods, using hip-hop as a hook — thus, they always feature well-known rap artists like Pharoahe Monch and Mos Def, who all perform on solar panel stages, using equipment fueled by bicycle power or biodiesel engines. The fact that Joseph's environmental theme usually gets subsumed within the whole spectacle doesn't seem to bother him. He says they're supposed to serve as an interactive experience, rather than a pedagogical tool.
That's also the concept behind his new piece, red, black, & GREEN: a blues, which runs this week at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Inspired by Joseph's experiences traveling to 'hoods throughout the country and talking to people about environmentalism, it has an extremely basic plot that leads into a much larger dialogue. Joseph addresses the problem — or "complication," as it were — very early on in his script. One of the first lines is, "Me and my not-for-profit community activist do-gooder friends are throwing an eco-party in the 'hood."
There's not that much drama in event production, even an event as large in scale and as bold in execution as the Living Word Festival. But it does spur a lot of interesting conversations, and those form the dramatic meat of red, black, & GREEN. "It's a performed documentary of the process of making 'Life Is Living' [aka Living Word]," Joseph said. He went on to list some of the terms we associate with the word "environment": global warming, polar bears, solar panels. "And we really bring it down," he said. "Environment is gravel. Environment is people. I ask a sculptor about environment, he tells me of 'misters.' Environment is about getting older. Environment is about guns in the black community. You know what I mean?"
Ergo, the moral: "that environment is more about social ecology than global ecology." But that's only one part of the play. It's actually structured as a triptych, beginning with an interactive art exhibit that doubles as the set, fabricated by Joseph's main collaborator and "super-diesel visual arts guy," Theaster Gates. Audience members get to walk inside four houses, each of which represents one of the cities that hosts the Living Word Festival (Oakland, Houston, Harlem, and Chicago). Actors will be onstage in character, performing parts of the story in Act II — Joseph calls this "echoes of the 'as yet.'"
Act III is a talk-back with the performers, who include Gates, dancer Traci Tolmaire, beatboxer and percussionist Tommy Shepherd, filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, and videographer David Szlasa. But, like every other element in red, black, & GREEN, it's structured in a nontraditional way. Rather than lecture the audience, the actors invite patrons onstage for a fully participatory discussion, complete with refreshments. He says that type of after-show debriefing fits the "social ecology" theme: It provides structure, without walls. red, black, & GREEN: a blues runs through October 22 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission St., San Francisco). 7:30 p.m., $5, $25. YBCA.org