Finding the Other 

The Future Project and Marc Bamuthi Joseph mix poetry and dance, revealing big things in small ways.

A man and woman stare at each other, searchingly. They're sitting at a table in the center of a barren stage. In front of them lies a row of stacked rocks, arranged as neatly as buds in a flowerbed. Likewise, the wall behind them is knotted with rock formations, giving the impression that these two people are trapped in the bottom of a mine — or a fish bowl. The lights dim and we hear the sound of gushing water. The lights come up and the woman emerges, center stage, to tell us everything this play will not be about. In the next scene — which, like many others, is void of words — the man appears to have an asthma attack. He wheezes, flops about the stage, teeters precariously as the woman tries to steady him. The two of them wear matching periwinkle outfits with fin-like ruffles and iridescent orange trim, making their bodies appear to blend together. Their death dance becomes a seamless pas de deux.

Like every other element of The Future Project: Sunday Will Come (a collaboration between Campo Santo and the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project, now onstage at San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts), this opening duet is spare, evocative, and cryptic. Not until about two thirds of the way through the play will most audience members understand what's happening, but when everything clicks together, there's not a wasted bit of dialogue nor single excess body movement. It's this economy of language that makes the show so effective. You think it's going one way and then it goes the other.

More surprising is the idea that a play that combines dance and spoken word — two characteristically profuse forms of expression — could achieve such rawness and austerity. Part of it owes to the choreography (by Erika Chong Shuch, who plays the woman), the chemistry between dancers Shuch and Sean San José (the man), and the musical canvas provided by Denizen Kane, who hovers in the background strumming his guitar. But it's largely the script — written by the performers, with help from Octavio Solis and Philip Kan Gotunda — that makes this work. Most of the dialogue occurs in blank verse, with sophisticated use of metaphor: Shuch and San José introduce the concept of "otherness" when they decide to quarantine a sick fish, and name their healthy fish "Other." The writing has a certain rhythmic command that you only find in spoken word, but there's nothing too showy about it. Even Kane, a poet whose groggy, mumbling voice often makes his words indecipherable, is terrific in this production. His songs perfectly hew to the characters' interactions.

Poetry and dance both traffic in emotional terms, but rarely are they so complete or exacting. In this play, though, big things get transmitted in small ways and every minute gesture becomes important. It would take a cold and disaffected soul to not empathize with Shuch in the closing scene, when she stands alone, addressing an empty stage.

Some spoken-word artists take universal concepts and make them personal. Others take the personal and make it political. Marc Bamuthi Joseph belongs to the latter school, in that he's known for latching on to a text, connecting it to some larger idea, and making the whole thing grow. For his latest piece, he fixated on the concept of "eco apartheid" — the idea that environmentalism hasn't yet found a vocabulary that appeals to inner-city neighborhoods. Bamuthi's solution is to marry the language of sustainability with the forms and styles of hip-hop.

Bamuthi dubbed his new project Red, Black and Green: A Blues. On Monday, Nov. 2, he'll perform parts of it at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as part of a solo showcase called The SpokenWorld. The show will open with excerpts of old material (The Scourge, Word Becomes Flesh, and The Breaks), followed by two components of Red, Black, and Green — a poem set to Bethanie Hines' photographs of the Uptown district in Chicago and a short documentary by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, shot at one of the Life Is Living events in Harlem's Riverbank State Park. (Bamuthi will enhance the visuals with original dance choreography.) Ultimately, Red, Black and Green will include a more elaborate theater piece based on interviews with festival participants.

Such multimedia endeavors are always a risky proposition, but they've become Bamuthi's stock in trade. Like the Future Project performers, he seeks to align dance and narrative in a provocative way, using spoken word as a filter. The trick is knowing how to economize: Once the ideas get bigger, the presentation has to get as small and compact as possible. That's the only way to make it stick.

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