Marc Bamuthi Joseph's Masterfully Executed Trifle
After productions at the Humana Festival, Yale Repertory Theatre, and New York City's Public Theater, Marc Bamuthi Joseph's the break/s arrives in Seattle as a well-polished, well-received work of hiphop theater. Subtitled a mixtape for the stage, the break/s is essentially a solo show with a live drummer/beatboxer (Soulati) and DJ (DJ Excess). But Joseph is the star—a dancing, bouncing performance poet who flawlessly executes some flawed material.
Joseph spins stories from his transglobal adventures as a "hiphop educator" from Wisconsin to Japan, a post that gives our poet-narrator a unique perspective on countless theater-worthy themes, from slippery international race relations (he expects kids at a Japanese hiphop club to pay obeisance to him as an authentic African American—the kids don't really care) to the slipperier task of summarizing something as contradictory and restless as hiphop.
Soulati and DJ Excess underscore and amplify the stories by sampling and replicating some of hiphop's most significant beats: Run-D.M.C.'s "Sucker MCs," Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise," Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth's "T.R.O.Y." Adding to the multimedia extravaganza: a trio of video screens lit up with thematically harmonious images, from man-on-the-street interviews about hiphop to—in one of the show's strongest segments—footage of African dancers set to glorious American street beats.
So why isn't this review a rave? Consider it a matter of emphasis. For all the accomplished stretches of dance and rich bursts of poetry—Joseph launched a few stunning text grenades—there were distracting digressions and aimless choreography. Fans of slam/performance poetry may love the break/s, but fans of theater, hiphop, and dance may find it distressingly scattered. The interview videos further muddied the waters. "What do you think of women in hiphop?" went one oft-repeated, stultifyingly vague question. Do you mean female MCs? Video vixens? The stain of misogyny on hiphop lyrics and lingo? "Women rock!" went one typically empty response. Shifting between sharp text, diverting dance, and pedantic community outreach, the break/s is a masterfully executed pastiche with curiously little chemistry between its components.