Like many professional artists, writer/performer Marc Bamuthi Joseph started young. The born-and-bred New Yorker made his Broadway debut at age 11, in 1983's The Tap Dance Kid. Then came television: commercials, guest spots, a sitcom with Robert "Benson" Guillaume. "By the time I was 15, I'd had significant training and experience in the commercial entertainment industry," Joseph tells me over the phone from Oakland, his new hometown. "And I didn't like it! My experiences were amazing, but the roles I was getting were pretty stereotypical. At a fairly early age, I saw the sacrifices people had to make in promoting a certain image of young black malehood, and I wanted to divert from that level of artistic manifestation that early."
Joseph's diversion of choice was education—first his own, then others', with Joseph landing a job as an English teacher at a Marin County high school in his early 20s. "I was using poetry and spoken word to begin investigation of more classic literature—The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare—and I began creating pieces along with my students," he says. "My methodology got some attention, and I was called in to do spoken-word workshops in the former Yugoslavia and in Bosnia."
Thus commenced Marc Bamuthi Joseph's true life's work, with the past decade finding him trekking the globe—France, Japan, Cuba, Senegal—as an award-winning slam poet, spoken-word performer, and self- described "arts activist."
Which brings us to the break/s, the theater piece Joseph premiered last year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival and has been touring to great acclaim ever since. Subtitled a mixtape for the stage, the break/s charts Joseph's globe-trotting adventures through the lens of hiphop, a music and culture Joseph has adored almost since its inception. His fateful influence: Savion Glover, the tap-dance superstar with whom Joseph first worked on Broadway in 1983. "As a 10-year-old, working with 13-year-old Savion, I really got turned on to pop culture, and the pop culture of the day was hiphop," Joseph tells me. "He was my introduction to music." Over the next few years, Glover would introduce Joseph to the artists who would inspire the next phase of his evolution: "Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Rakim... I became politicized through hiphop."
But Joseph was inspired to take his decade-spanning love of hiphop to the stage by one of hiphop culture's richest artifacts: Can't Stop Won't Stop, Jeff Chang's award-winning "history of the hiphop generation," published in 2005 and revered ever since. "The impetus for the break/s began when I was reading Jeff's book in Paris, where I'd come for a festival of choreographers from Africa," says Joseph. "In France, with Africans, reading a Chinese- Hawaiian guy's writing about hiphop—it was totally a transglobal experience! But it wasn't the content so much as the form of the book that totally turned me on. The book moves the way the culture does—there's sampling and call-and-response, referencing what came before, presaging and foreshadowing what's to come... It reminds me of the way a DJ moves the fader on his mixer, from one record to another."
Joseph took a similar tack is assembling the break/s, which employs an onstage DJ (DJ Excess), an onstage drummer (Soulati), and choreography by Stacey Printz to create "a piece of theater as influenced by hiphop as Hair is by rock music," Joseph says. "What I wanted was to create a piece of theater that examines Americanization in a way that is distinctly and formulaically 'hiphop,' using what I think are the best parts of hiphop culture."
Foremost among these "best parts": the titular breaks, those rhythmic interruptions/breakdowns/repetitions that have juiced hiphop since the beginning, co-opted by Joseph in his play's kaleidoscopic-mixtape structure, and the sense of community inherent in both hiphop and theater. "Hiphop sprung up in ritual community space around portable sound systems, where whoever had the loudest system is the one who rocked the party," says Joseph. "That's where hiphop was born, in peaceful communities around loud sound."
Of course the central question of any mixtape is always: Who is it for? "It's like the mixtape you make for a young love," Joseph tells me. "It's made for Americans. Maybe it's dedicated to those of us born between 1965 and 1990, but it's made for everyone."