While I’m not sure that Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s solo show The Break/s: A Mixtape for the Stage succeeds in all the ways he’s hoping it will, I do know that it’s a fast-moving, fast-talking 75 minutes that leaves you with something to mull over as you head home—and that’s nothing to dismiss in a society busy dishing out two-and-a-half-hours of epic mindlessness like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Flanked by DJ Excess on turntables and musician Tommy Shepherd on drums (he also provides vocal backup) and backed by three large video screens, Joseph begins the night lying in a circle of light that places him on the grooves of a record about to spin. And spin he does—literally and figuratively—to the music of his life.
He’s almost constantly in motion, either in dance to which Excess and Shepherd supply the beat or in illustrative storytelling gesture. His tales, meanwhile, span the globe, in bits and pieces suggested by the mixtape of the show’s title. He discusses his experiences as a black man teaching in Wisconsin; attending an arts conference in France (“In Paris, I am the surrogate for 50 Cent”); fainting during a ritual in Haiti; and existing as no more than “a living word lost in translation” in Japan. That last phrase is indicative of Joseph’s fleet facility with language; in one swoop he packs in an alliterative metaphor, a pop culture reference, and a rumination on identity.
Throughout, in fact, he agonizes over whether he can “choose love over identity” in his relationship with a white woman and frankly confesses that “she’s the woman I want to come home to…not always the woman I want to leave the house with.”
I am not, I’ll admit, a fan of slam poetry and so have lower tolerance for Joseph’s more extended raps (although there’s a hysterically wild, random story involving Prince’s sexual connection to the Mona Lisa). And Joseph doesn’t escape the One-Man-Show Syndrome, wherein a performer chokes up over an emotion that we all know he must have long since worked through during several nights a week on stage.
There is, however, true heartbreak and frustration running through the piece. In addition to the pressures of an interracial relationship, Joseph juggles the expectations of family and friends (is performing a hip-hop solo show to white audiences selling out?) as well as the confounding lack of expectation in certain foreigners (he amusingly admits he thought he’d strut into Japan with street cred but discovers he is “just another guy who might be too old to be at the club.”)
Yet if Joseph wants to lift us to a higher understanding of hip-hop—if, say, he’d like to posit the music’s accompanying cultural movement as the epitome of a kind of pop liberation—he hasn’t quite done it here. Director Michael John Garcés, with considerable help from lighting designer James Clotfelter, keeps the show focused and moving forward but can’t disguise the fact that the hip-hop element of the show often plays like a disguise, a surface gesture (which is sometimes Joseph’s point—and he scores anecdotal jokes at his own expense off of it—but is not, I suspect, the overarching intent).
No one’s ever identified in the brief video interviews that occasionally play behind Joseph—during which people chime in about, for instance, whether white people can truly practice or appreciate hip-hop—and nothing they’re saying illuminates the issues, anyway. The screens serve more as window dressing than as windows—you don’t look through them and see something new on the other side.
Hip-hop, then, probably won’t mean any more to you than whatever it meant when you walked in. But the music and its methods serve as electric packaging for one man’s eloquent, sometimes disappointed but often optimistic thoughts about what it means to be black and American at a time when both of those words are evolving with each passing day. “Don’t push,” Joseph says at the evening’s denouement. “I’m trying.”