Friday, March 09, 2007

Mark Bamuthi Joseph on "Scourge"

Essays and poems by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
All photographs by Gabriella Marks

Haitian-American performance artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and a cast of spoken-word artists, dancers, and musicians ignite the Flynn MainStage in Scourge on Friday, March 23, shining a passionate light on questions of identity, cultural legacy, history, and assimilation.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a National Poetry Slam champion, Broadway veteran, recipient of 2002 and 2004 National Performance Network Creation commissions, a USA Rockefeller Fellow in Theater Arts, and a veteran of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. He is also the artistic director of Youth Speaks—the premier youth poetry, spoken word, and creative writing program in the country.

In Scourge—an exorcism and re-imagination of traditional theatrical genres—Marc Bamuthi Joseph offers a powerful, political and revolutionary look at Haiti in its 200th year as a sovereign nation. Still languishing as the poorest country in the hemisphere—plagued by crumbling infrastructure and unimaginable debt—Haiti suffers politically and socially from massive prejudice and misperception. Scourge grew out of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s desire to re-imagine his native country through the medium of performance art in order to create a new and more accurate history which addresses not only political events, but the people, places, and context that created them. Through an explosive fusion of hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean dance and music, and spoken-word poetry, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and his cast explore the narrow space between history, myth, and speculation—bursting the boundaries of racism and ignorance and bringing to light the importance of preserving our cultural legacies in an increasingly global world.

The following essays and poems are by, and courtesy of, Marc Bamuthi Joseph:

After a successful revolt from 1797 to 1804, upstart slaves led by Toussaint L’Ouverture defeated Naploean’s army and Haiti established itself as the first Black republic in the post-Columbian New World on January 1, 1804. Western Europe instated sanctions against Haiti and, in addition to this economic blow, France demanded “reparations” to former slaveholders in 1825, amounting to 90 million gold francs (equivalent to $21.7 billion today). Haiti continued to make payments to France until the 1950s, but has since become the poorest country in the Western hemisphere—and has been plagued by political violence and corrupt dictators for most of its history.

Amidst a back drop of political chaos, Haiti celebrated its 200th year as an independent nation in January 2004. This tenure ranks second only to the United States in the post-Columbian “new world.” And yet while the U.S. is clearly the planet’s most powerful nation, Haiti languishes as the poorest country in the hemisphere, plagued by a crumbling infrastructure, political turmoil, and unimaginable debt. How could two countries born of the same revolutionary spirit spiral so dramatically in opposite directions? Drawing from this point of inquiry and inspired by artists ranging from Maya Deren to Katherine Dunham to Ntozake Shange, Scourge advances our dialogue about the historical impulses that have left a great nation far behind its peers. It is the natural progression from the Living Word Project’s last work, wherein we move from one voice to five, and autobiography to allegory.

By examining the social history of Haiti through a full-length work of hip-hop theater, Scourge is a highly relevant work both artistically and politically. The invocation of Haiti as a microcosmic illustration for post-colonial malaise is a timely and insurgent point of focus, and I truly believe that the execution of this piece, particularly its intersection of poetry and movement, replete with Def Poets and Urban Bush Women, will become a standard bearer for artists who use hip-hop as a means of folkloric re-invention.

This piece is the quintessential American story: the conflict of securing “old world” family tradition and history in a country fed by McDonald’s and clothed by the Gap. Our narrative specifically addresses this quandary in a Haitian family, but the audience for this piece listens to hip-hop AND folklore, reads Emerson AND Danticat, speaks English AND Créole. Through a fusion of spoken word, live music, and dance, the piece suggests a series of historical factors that led to Haiti’s present-day situation. Jumping between significant markers in Haiti’s past, blurring history with speculation, we believe that the truth dies with us—unless we tuck its meaning in myth, media, and gospel.

Thank you for being open.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph


I am the daughter of a small Caribbean country
My mother on her deathbed
She’s wasting away daily

but before I tell you of our legacy
you must be of strong stomach
discerning ear
distilling truth
there is no correct answer
no corruption without good intent somewhere

my heritage is a wilting mother’s body
on a hospital bed
The tips of her hands blue, and a trail of maroon in slow exude
from a mouth she over stuffed corruption into
force fed death by the imperial west
maman is leaving us too soon

And she ripples like our flag today
Wavering between family and country
Au Caille and the other side, over yonder
She has a frame built for touch
None of these places ever eased her Enuf
She stays divided
—arguing amongst herselves
Like the national pastime
Not sure if she could do right
by no means heroic—
But what does heroism buy

of the third world us females
grown accustomed to the snap
of skeletons crunching under bare foot

you ain’t heard what happened
down there
her mothers before her toting guns and steel
they slit master’s throat
smelled like revolt
bled themselves clean

But Non. My legacy is birthright in epithet
I will not call her St. Domingue
Christophe, Toussaint, or Dessaline
Please call her by her given name
My mother: ayiti
protect her of her mountainous flesh.
Ayiti is for sure a woman
sickly or no
1804 gurgling in her throat
my legacy is what happened
ain’t you heard what happened

and not a moment too soon.


Two brown boys
Too poor
To prosper
Two nations
Too proud
To conquer
Two take refuge on makeshift boats
Two prayers ascend dear god make her float
To U.S. soil
To holy land
Too rough the waters
Two boys descend
To join the sand at the bottom of the sea
Where too many African bodies be
Too upset
Their spirits are set
Underneath the water
Where two boys get a push up
To breathe
To heave
To clutch
To hold on to pieces of shattered boat
Like intact dreams they loved so much
They left the countries they loved so much
To escape
To defect from nothing left
But the farming of bones and death

Two brown boys divided by sea
Two brown boys both could be on tv
Ask a rich man exactly what do he see
Rich man say both look like niggas to me
The year is present day
two thousand and few
two stories ignored by the five o clock news
and who’s up in Paris lockdown at curfew
and who’s up in Brooklyn ridin the A train to school
and who’s in Darfur among skulls and refuse?
And who sits in Guantanamo without any food
And who’s still on rooftops waiting for rescue?
And who
And who


Learn more about Haiti and its people in a FREE pre-performance lecture on Friday, March 23 at 6:30 pm in the Flynn's Amy E. Tarrant Gallery. Local artists and scholars with deep ties to Haiti will discuss some of the relationships between Haiti and the United States and speak about how the small island nation’s cultural and artistic life has flourished despite its long and troubled history.

FlynnArts will also offer two workshops by March Bamuthi Joseph: Living the Spoken Word on Saturday, March 24 from 1 to 3 pm and, later that same day, Haitian Dance from 3:30 to 5 pm.

Read more about it! The Flynn Center/Fletcher Free Library Book Club will meet in the library on Wednesday, March 14 at 7:30 pm for a FREE discussion of Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones, a powerful novel about Haiti and its neighboring Dominican Republic. Call the library for information and registeration: 802-865-7211.

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