Though he spent a good chunk of his career sparring with bigwigs and politicians, writer and activist Amiri Baraka is no mere rabble-rouser. Rather, Baraka is lionized both for his mercurial temperament and the fierceness of his prose. He's known for kicking off poetry readings with an ad-libbed bassline from Monk's "Misterioso," and for coining such phrases as "'three blind mice' The Colon, The Skeeza and Tom Ass, at the top of Bush-2's junta" (the "mice" being Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Clarence Thomas, respectively). His writing has a preternatural, musical quality in its rhythmic phrasing and tendency to start on a crescendo, making him naturally predisposed to a medium he entered just recently — that of the jazz opera, or "bopera."
The poet's latest collaboration with tenor saxophonist David Murray, The Sisyphus Syndrome, spawned from the Greek myth about a king who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down — a process he had to repeat ad infinitum. Baraka said it's a fitting allegory for the African-American experience. "It was W.E.B. Du Bois who said that's what the African-American freedom movement is like," he explained in a recent phone interview. Baraka staged his production as a historical epic with an overarching metaphor: Slavery ends and the rock rolls up; it goes down after the decline of Reconstruction and rise of the Klan; it goes up with civil rights and the Panthers, and down with the Bush administration. "It ends with the kind of note of realism that the rock is back down again," said the poet. "It's come down beneath our expectation."
Baraka originally staged The Sisyphus Syndrome for a New York black opera company in 2004, but was dissatisfied with the result — partly because they scored it in the style of European opera, he said, and because it was more or less a star turn for one basso singer. This new, more contemporary version — featuring a six-person chorus, a dancer, and the four-piece Freedom Now! Band with Murray leading on saxophone — harks back to the post-bop idioms of 1960 to the present. "It's really an attempt to put it in a completely contemporary mode even though it's talking about old stuff," said Baraka, indicating that he's pleased with this production. Murray proved an ideal collaborator for someone who always writes with Monk or Trane playing in the background, and the score he developed for Sisyphus brings a sense of unity to the theme. Most importantly, though, it emphasizes the music in Baraka's writing. The Sisyphus Syndrome plays Thursday-Saturday, May 8-10, at EastSide Cultural Center (2277 International Blvd., Oakland). 8 p.m., $10, $20. EastSideArtsAlliance.org
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