By Jessica Lockhart
The righteous and the blind sends a necessary and powerful message – it’s 2022, we need to wake up!
The righteous and the blind, Designed and written by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Original music by Daniel Bernard Roumain. Directed by Michael John Garces. At the Emerson Paramount Center in Boston. (Farm)
This spring, Boston’s Celebrity Series features three shows focused on social justice. The first was the haunting dance of Sankofa Danzafro Accommodating Liewhich dealt with slavery and racism. (artistic fuse review) The second in the series was that of Marc Bamuthi Joseph The righteous and the blind, a multimedia project that explores – from the perspective of fathers of black and brown children – racial profiling, injustices of sentencing and the prison-industrial complex. This performance sends a necessary and powerful message – it’s 2022, we need to wake up!
The four-person ensemble packed a big emotional punch in an hour-long performance that included live music, dancing, storytelling and beautiful singing. The opening scene featured a giant blurry image projected above the stage. It had the mysterious resonance of abstract art. Then the creator of the show, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, took the stage: he told how much he was afraid, as a father, of having to face the behavior of his 16-year-old son. His discomfort was all the greater as his boy had officially entered his years as the “main suspect” in the eyes of the police. As he spoke, the image came into focus and we saw a close-up of a black boy’s face.
Bamuthi Joseph tells us that he was arrested several times in his youth for minor offences. He knows that his black son will be the target of a special examination by the police. Will his son, he wonders, be wise enough to survive these encounters? A skilled storyteller, Bamuthi Joseph speaks with enormous musicality and grace. As for the power of his writing, here is part of that opening monologue:
“I have to say, you know, today isn’t the day I don’t love my son enough to tell him, kid, I don’t care about your rights. Your mission is to come home, live to tell me the story, boy, come home…. Driving in black is its own kind of experience.… The boy driving, the cop in the rear view mirror is a ticket to ride or die. When you talk to a black boy, you pray he’s from the surviving faction. You telepathically initiate the frequency of a final goodbye.…Answering America’s call and its worst hits us. The music lives a cosmos of tobacco or sugar or cotton in muddy water. Come home son like supreme love, god like love, a love outweighs the feathers for the angelic lift of the restless dead, or a theme for a troubled man, or a 16 year old boy free to make mistakes and live through them. Grow from them. Holy, Holy, Mercy. Mercy, Mercy. Mercy, Mercy.
The show was made up of several vignettes, each offering a different perspective on family life. The show’s message may be demodulated, but the evening was far from monotonous: these stories were funny, explosive, tender, courageous and angry.
Intertwined throughout the performance are striking photographs of young black children with their parents and grandparents. Cartoons and video sequences, as well as these images, were also shown. We watched scenes from a Black Panther rally and the historic march on Birmingham.
The four performers took turns on stage. Some rounds were solo, at other times the performers interacted with each other. Brooklyn-based dancer King Havoc performed a text by Bamuthi Joseph via a Flexin’ dance that drew inspiration from dancehall, reggae and hip-hop styles. The Flexin’ moves were intricate and showcased various parts of the dancer’s body. With mesmerizing precision, King Havoc moved from waves of undulating lushness to a succession of sinewy contortions. Memorably, at one point he created a silhouette that captured the agony of someone with a tortured soul.
The collaborator and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain created an original score, a beautiful sound environment. On stage, he plays both piano and electric violin, shaping his music to intensify spoken words. The sound of the violin passes with ease from joyful to violent. At times his violin playing was so deep and harmonious it sounded like he was playing the cello. The fourth performer, Débo Ray, is a Grammy-nominated singer and former Berklee student and teacher. She sang two original songs written by Bamuthi Joseph which were inspired by the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King and Assata Shakur. The powerful lyrics matched his powerful voice.
Other audio elements heard throughout the performance were voiceovers of incarcerated youth talking about their lives and lessons learned. As melancholic as it was to hear, these confessions confirmed the tragic problem we have with the criminal justice system and people of color.
“Chained, humiliated, then frightened,” Bamuthi Joseph recalled of the time he was handcuffed, surrounded by police. He was detained for parking at a bus stop. Fearing for his life, he remembers the words he wanted to be remembered: “Bury me in the fight for freedom”.
The final program in this three-part social justice series features the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater at the end of April. The Celebrity series is to be commended for programming uncompromising performances that directly address oppression. It’s an organization that doesn’t shy away from presenting dramas that explore America’s shameful history of treating people of color as second-class citizens — or worse.
Jessica Lockhart is a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts in Dance Criticism and holds a BA in Communications from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is an award-winning freelance journalist with the Maine Association of Broadcasters. Currently, she is also working as a Program Director at WMPG Community Radio.