Last Saturday, “MCLA Presents!,” in conjunction with the College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts “Creating Equality” Series, put on an outstanding production of the spoken word and dance titled Word Becomes Flesh in the Eleanor Furst Roberts Auditorium in North Adams.
The performance featured five actors on stage: Dahlak Brathwaite, Daveed Diggs, Dion Reiner-Guzman, Khalil Anthony, Michael Wayne Turner III and B. Yung, all of whom were young, black and male, in addition to a D.J., Dion Decibels, positioned just in front of the stage. As a minimalist performance, there was no set and the actors wore no costumes; each simply wore a slight variation of an all-black ensemble. The only effect was the lights, which varied widely across the performance and did an excellent job of changing the mood in a flash. Another distinctive element of this performance was the system of “call and response” implemented. As the performance began, the audience was encouraged to “let people know” if they saw anything they liked, or didn’t like, on stage. As a result, affirmative yells and even more subtle snaps, as befits the subtle poetry of spoken word, were consistently heard throughout the show.
Though there were distinct shifts in mood and main actors throughout the show, it is better described as one long narrative with shifting narrators rather than many independent poems or scenes. The common theme was black masculinity with emphasis on the responsibilities and worries that come with fatherhood – particularly unexpected fatherhood.
The show shifted across many different moods through the evening. Beginning in an anxious mood, the performance began with the sound of a quickening heartbeat. Only two members were on stage, with one simulating running across the stage while another read poetry in an increasingly loud and dramatic fashion, ending with a promise not to be an absent father. Blue light flooded the stage.
Then, in an instant, the mood totally shifted. Warm orange light bathed the stage, while slow, sensual music played. A single cast member gave a humorous monologue about a man “tempted by the possibility of sex” despite already having a girlfriend. With great timing and the perfect amount of self-deprecation, it was one of the funnier moments of the show. Yet once again, the mood shifted incredibly quickly. Immediately after comparing his experience with this other woman’s body to a religious revelation, he states simply and devoid of emotion: “Black people are never on time, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when she told me she was late.” The simple method of revealing the unintended pregnancy at the center of the plot played excellently and led to audible appreciation in the audience.
The rest of the show featured a centralized dialogue about the “brown boy” that was to be born. Ranging from sentimental to incredibly angry, the monologues explored what it means to grow up a black man when it seems like the whole of society works against you.
One of the most powerful portions of the evening explained the father’s fear of his son absorbing the “N***** Mentality.” A harsh red light overtook the stage, and all the cast members were a part of this portion of the performance. They contorted their bodies in jerky and uncomfortable motions, making grotesque faces and noises while they spoke one at a time. There was no music, only the sounds of heavy breathing and constant slapping noises from feet and hands hitting the floor. The actors’ voices took on a high-pitched, mocking sound as they explained the various levels of connection between racism and capitalism, impersonating the societal evils rather than just describing them.
After this heavy and emotional portion, the audience was glad for the respite that came as the performers humorously explained how happy they were to be having a baby boy over a baby girl. Citing issues that have arisen within hip-hop music such as avocation of promiscuity and disrespect of women, this performance even managed to feature twerking among the serious criticisms.
There is no denying that the cast is incredibly talented. Each performer summoned incredible emotion to carry some of the sadder portions of the show, while still keeping the show light and funny enough to stop it from being oppressive. This collaboration between the College and MCLA proved successful – let us hope it is not the last one.