Let’s start with the overview, so we can get on to the good stuff. Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s world premiere the break/s, a "mixtape for the stage” as the subtitle describes it, is an impressive extension of hip-hop as an art form. Wheeling through speech, rhythmic spoken word, dance, beat-box, and mixed beats and mixed film, is a story at once personal and universal, a story about identity, race, and love—an important story for our time.
“I am becoming one of them,” Joseph worries—“them” being the people who don’t get it, the fence-builders, the bland and blind majority. “I want a Lexus and justice,” he tosses off, cutting to the heart of a paradox of black success. There’s more, lots more, but let him tell it. You should go see the break/s if you like hip-hop. You should go if you want to know more about hip-hop. You should go if you think hip-hop is not a vehicle for those high art ideas and emotions, because you will be converted, and the sooner the better. You should take friends, you should settle in, you should open your eyes and let this ride take you.
The audience will help. This is a noisy, ready audience; this is an audience in the know. The woman behind me moans “I like that,” and finishes Joseph’s sentences—“if you don’t commit to spinning on your head, you will break your neck”—then moans again, with barbed wire in the soft part of the sound. I want to know what she knows. I want to be her. But not in the world beyond the theater, where my white life is probably the easier one—which revelation leaves me not locked outside her experience, not buying it on Amazon, but finding my own sources of smaller but similar emotion, my own slightly less experienced growl and purr. All Americans have black in them, as Ralph Ellison observed. Not that there aren’t still differences—and at times Joseph opens them up. (“What do you think of white people in hip-hop?” asks his collaborator Soulati [Tommy Shepherd] to nervous laughter before the show begins.) But the break/s is a place for that black and blue streak—everyone’s, anyone’s.
While the audience lulls and awakens your social self, stellar design does the same for your senses. Joseph credits a host of people with backing his mostly solo performance (live music provided by Soulati and DJ Excess), but the result is never muddled. At times, single elements stand out: a plane of blue light that slides up from ground to ceiling, a projection of static that covers the entire stage like a skin. At times, the design—light, set, music, video—is that good kind of too much that causes you to close your eyes when biting into an especially delicious dessert—but you can’t close your eyes because Joseph is dancing.
Sensory overload, evoking emotional overload, evoking life. The design helps to reveal some of the inner workings of hip-hop as well: What we call “soul” is a pitch-perfect juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, of dark and light. Soulati builds his vocal music from a series of loops, each as he records it becoming a history that he works with and against. And what is a rhyme in spoken word? Rapid-fire, it can be a bullet, too-much hitting home because you don’t have time to get your defenses up. Slower, a rhyme is a tag, touching ground, a little “hello, I’m here” that humanizes the verbal landscape the way graffiti humanizes the urban landscape. The break/s reveals hip-hop as a style that deals with and evokes a too-fast life journey through a landscape of extremes.
There’s more than a bit of journey, of the Odyssey, in the break/s. Like Odysseus, Joseph roams around the world seeking home. He’s understood, misunderstood, loved, ignored, brought low, and raised high everywhere he goes. Like that wily hero, Joseph’s a great storyteller, a complete performer. Joseph even has a son he wants to go home and be a father to (Telemachus) and a woman he wants to love (Penelope), but his own striving identity keeps him away from her. Over and over Joseph starts over with “this story begins in the middle”—in medias res, the standard beginning of any epic, because if you went back and started at the real beginning, it’d take you forever to tell this story.
Last thoughts: we have to talk a little about the dance before I send you off to see this show. Hip-hop has none of the pretended lightness of ballet. Instead, the ground is a mother, giving force to the continual elasticity of the dancer, giving energy that finds its way out in a continual elaboration of joints and muscles. In the break/s, dance breaks out periodically, then is cut off; truth demands that the dance be denied at times, that neither we nor Joseph are allowed to feel its saving conversion all the time. We have to wait for it, need it. Joseph evokes the runaway slave, and hip-hop is recognizably a dance of escape. Again unlike ballet, hip-hop holds no points in air, no platonic ideals of the steps performers touch or miss. Instead, what you are trying to do is shake it loose—work free from the cruelty of the moment into the love you know is out there. Through the break/s, Joseph lets us feel that cruelty, and that release.