NORTH ADAMS -- The adventure, which began quite simply, as an expectant father pondered his forthcoming responsibilities in parenthood, emerged as one of those unexpected American landmarks in arts expression.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, an award-winning director and choreographer, decided to sit down and write letters to his unborn child to convey, and prepare his progeny for what life would be like for an African-American growing up in our society.
Moreover, he regarded his exercise as a narrative with most fathers-to-be: "There's plenty of attention and energy and, in many cases, data and support for moms during pregnancy, but the plight of the dad is a little under-documented, and I wanted to find a way to articulate my feelings in the trajectory, and also to compose an heirloom to pass down generationally," Joseph explained in a phone conversation earlier this week from his home in the Oakland, Calif., hills.
Following his creative and imaginative instincts, Joseph developed his letters into a one-person theater piece, which he performed until 2006, embracing poetry and other spoken word, dance and music. He called it "Word Becomes Flesh."
In 2010 the show grew, in scope and form, after its selection for the National Endowment for the Arts' "American Masterpieces" series. It now has a cast of six versatile poet/performers who are traveling the country imparting Joseph's message in what he calls a "choreopoem." Presented in association with Williams College, the show will be performed Saturday evening at 7:30 in the Church Street Center's Eleanor Furst Roberts Auditorium as part of MCLA's year-long "Creating Equality" series.
It will be preceded at 6 by a panel discussion entitled "Trayvon Martin, Race and Being a Black Man in America," during which MCLA and Williams faculty and students explore issues facing African Americans in the Berkshires and elsewhere.
Inspired by Shange
Joseph said he drew inspiration for "Word Becomes Flesh" from Ntozake Shange and her stage play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf."
"This thing of spreading narrative across marginalized bodies has always been magnetic for me," said Joseph, who noted that he had spent considerable time as the program and artistic director of Brave New Voices, an annual youth poetry gathering of young people drawn from 50 different cities in this country and other places throughout the world.
"It's a large festival that really showcases some of the best young artists, ages 13-19-years-old, and everyone in our cast is an alum of Brave New Voices," said Joseph. "For the most part I met all of the men when they were teenagers, so when it came time to do this work I didn't have auditions and go through that typical cast processing.
"I went with what I'd seen over the years -- from folks that graduated from Brown to folks that didn't go to college."
The vitas of his cast members, who are credited as the show's co-creators, include such distinctions as hip-hop artist, actor, poet, slam poetry coach, educator, composer, classically-trained dancer, writer, painter and rap singer, some having performed over the globe. Joseph said the show draws from their spectrum of experience in exploring the idea that African-American "male-hood" is not monolithic.
"It's a special group of men, very positive, very articulate, compassionate and versatile in their capacity to speak to young people in particular.
"I like the show better with them doing it, than me doing it," he confided with a chuckle.
Joseph said his background is in musical theater: "I developed a range of movement that includes West African, Haitian and Cuban, as well as hip-hop movement. The dance in the show borrows from all those styles.
"The movement is fluid, with poetry, monologue and music-making -- there's a makeshift recording studio on stage and a DJ": Dion Decibels, a Bay Area DJ, sound engineer, producer and teacher, dispatches original music -- soul, jazz and hip-hop - written by cast members, individually and collaboratively, according to Joseph.
As for the recipient of those letters that launched this adventure: M'Kai is now 11. "He'll be 12 in December," noted Joseph. "He's some awesome kid, a typical pre-teen -- he's a ‘tween, in all the love and drama that that brings."