FIRST THINGS FIRST. If you don’t know this, you should: black people are doing significant work at this very moment all throughout the environmental movement. Despite this good work, it’s impossible not to notice an absence of black people from most conversations about the environment. Or, to say it more plainly, environmentalism is often considered a privileged, white concern.
As an African-American person, I find this especially troubling given that we, as a group disproportionately impacted by environmental concerns, have a greater stake in these conversations than almost any other group. It’s easy enough to see environmental violence writ large on black bodies, from asthma and obesity to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So what will it take for the environmental movement to include those most affected by it? And what will it take for those most affected by it to embrace the environmental movement?
red, black & GREEN: a blues (rbGb), a hybrid theater piece written by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, asks these very questions. The play is a performed documentary of Bamuthi’s struggles and triumphs coproducing Life is Living, a series of arts festivals that celebrate environment, community, and healthy interaction in underresourced urban neighborhoods. Bamuthi and the three other performers (all of them throughout the piece variously actors, singers, musicians, and dancers) depict a number of significant and often revelatory conversations and interactions he’s had with community members from Chicago, New York, Houston, and Oakland, the cities where the Life is Living festivals have been staged. Along the way, red, black & GREEN explores the impediments and opportunities for underresourced communities in the environmental movement while also depicting the very compelling story of Bamuthi’s own environmental coming-of-age.
AFTER WAITING IN LINE for the theater doors to open for this Mother’s Day performance in Washington DC, my mother and I, along with the rest of the audience, are pointed onto the stage where the four performers are already in action, variously singing, dancing, or making music with feet or fists or improvised instruments hung from sets built of repurposed wood. At no point during this introduction can we see all of the performers or the whole set at once, so we amble around the stage, investigating each small scene: this one’s body in elegant, forceful motion on a little perch above a few mute televisions scrolling images; that one’s hands steadily racketing forth a beat; another deep in song; and the other in monologue. Soon we are being offered food by one of the performers who stands inside a window slicing watermelon — learning with hesitation to take the real food handed to us — before another performer calls us into a small courtyard made by wheeling the modular set this way and that, welcoming us, addressing us directly; and soon we are in church — the whole mixed-up, black, brown, yellow, and white lot of us (the most racially mixed audience I’ve ever seen at a play) — singing and clapping together, “Belief is black.” I can see my mother, a seventy-two-year-old white woman, clapping and singing along. Forget the distancing, body-abstracting mechanism of the stage: these bodies sweat; these bodies strain; these bodies struggle. The performers are like us — magic and fragile at once. And there is no mistaking, as they beckon us closer or move through or around us, as they speak or sing directly to us: we are part of the story. This inclusiveness, this togetherness, is perhaps Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s most vested interest.
Bamuthi grew up in urban Queens, but it wasn’t until he moved to California several years ago that his environmental fires got sparked, first as artistic director of the nationally renowned youth poetry organization Youth Speaks, where his students would often be the only people of color at eco-themed events. A particularly catalyzing moment for Bamuthi came when he read an article in the New York Times about the EPA striking down a California law that would have improved emissions standards. At that point it occurred to him that “morally and ethically these people do not care.” And he realized, as well, that his work would need to address issues of environment, which are — lest we forget — issues of human justice. “If we don’t all turn our heads toward this question,” Bamuthi says, “then everyone loses.”
So he began integrating environmental concerns into the Life is Living festivals. But rather than simply preaching about how people ought to be living, Bamuthi thought, “Why don’t we just do programming where people are?” Why not, while Mos Def performs, have a solar-powered stage, recycling stations, and reusable water bottles? It’s a sound, and very human, strategy; rather than replicate established power dynamics (here’s what you need to do, and I’m going to tell you how), talk with people. As a consequence, while at a festival with great music and food, people for whom the environmental movement has mostly had little use are suddenly in on the conversation. It’s a strategy not that different, incidentally, from the one Bamuthi takes in red, black & GREEN.
AFTER FIFTEEN MINUTES OR SO of stage time, we are offered our seats in the audience, at which point the narrative element of the play begins. Bamuthi starts telling the story of the Life is Living festivals to the audience in his typically disarming and self-deprecating manner: “Me and some not-for-profit community activist do-gooder types throw an eco-party in the hood.” Their enthusiasm is challenged, though, when they encounter some of the real circumstances in the community. When Bamuthi asks a woman in Chicago about environmentalism, a woman mourning her young son lost in the devastating gun violence afflicting some of the poor black neighborhoods in that city (and elsewhere), she replies, almost scornfully, “What would grow here?” Like Bamuthi, we are asked to imagine the perils of poor black life — the contingency of which might make day-to-day survival more imminent a worry than climate change. In another scene, riffing on Chief Seattle’s notion that the land cannot be owned, Bamuthi says, “If this is true, black people are the Chief Seattlest environmental-type mutha fuckas on EARTH.” He’s not kidding: land ownership among black people plummeted over the course of the twentieth century. In a scene in New York, Bamuthi meets the “green czar of Harlem” who “wants to know my credentials before he co-signs on our festival.” In this comical scene, three of the actors belt out a litany of eco-prerequisites in double-time: “You in a car co-op? skipping the elevator? takin’ the stairs? you eating local organic nonpackaged and fresh? you a vegan eating in season and freezing what’s left?” To which Bamuthi breathlessly exclaims, “Yo Harlem czar, man I wanna go green, but how the fuck can I you won’t let me breathe?” There’s something remarkable about Bamuthi’s soft touch: he expresses the gravest concerns and makes the most astute observations without preaching or accusing, even inviting us to laugh. Indeed, in addition to his commanding stage presence — he’s the author and performer of a number of other plays, in addition to being a slam poetry champion — are the ways he can disarm an audience by exposing his own fallibility and struggle: his humanity. In this way, the audience has room to encounter its own.
And while red, black & GREEN explores significant roadblocks to black environmentalism, it also offers stories of persistence, possibility, and transformation. In one moving vignette, a community gardener and organizer in Houston steadily plants her gardens and trains community members to do the same, believing in the gardens’ ability to heal. In another, a recovered addict describes his house, decorated into a kind of art object with garbage he’s collected from the neighborhood, with the affection usually reserved for a loved one. “This place keep me going,” he says, “keep me something to do. It’s just my pride and joy.” And late in the play, Bamuthi struggles to convey to his son the significance and legacy of the Black Panthers, yet another chapter in the story of black people caring for each other.
The grace with which Bamuthi handles other people’s stories is remarkable. Voicing real people can be treacherous, particularly given that the voices he’s speaking for are so often mischaracterized or ignored. But judging from the tenderness and honesty and love with which the various characters are portrayed, there’s no doubt that he’s a superb and committed listener.
It’s clear from the way the play utilizes their great talents that Bamuthi also listens to his many indispensible collaborators: dancer and actor Traci Tolmaire, percussionist and actor Tommy Shepherd, and singer and actor Yaw. There are also the videographer and choreographer, both of whose work is seen throughout the piece. And an especially significant collaborator is the set designer and sometimes-performer Theaster Gates, whose own aesthetic practice also requires deep listening.
Gates’s set emerges out of his work refashioning or repurposing abandoned or neglected urban spaces into beautiful, community-enhancing ones. Gates, who is the Director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago and is called variously an artist, urban planner, sculptor, or ceramicist, is probably most accurately a radical community solutionist — he sees opportunities to preserve and strengthen communities where others see blight and wreckage. When a couple of buildings in his neighborhood became suddenly blighted and very inexpensive ($240,000 to $16,000 in three years), Gates purchased and transformed them, gutting and rehabilitating the buildings while making sculpture of the detritus. He converted one of the buildings into a community library — something the city, evidently, was incapable of doing.
The modular set for red, black & GREEN works similarly. Made of salvaged and repurposed materials, it can be easily assembled and dissembled, and is moved about on stage by the actors. With all the pieces combined, it’s a kind of colorful shotgun house. Gates says he intentionally designed the set with the various artists’ abilities in mind: one part of the house is a drum on which percussionist Shepherd shines; another part of the house is also a stage, which both Tolmaire and Bamuthi use to great effect. And although we watched most of the performance from our seats, our closeness to the set as we explored it at the beginning of the play made us more than just an audience; we were participants. In this way Gates’s sets transformed what could have been a sterile environment into a rich one, a community-building one. Not to mention that the sets are beautiful; in this very necessary way they compel us to settle in. Together.
red, black & GREEN DOES NOT exactly provide answers. I did not leave the theater thinking, “Aha! That’s what we need to do to make a more inclusive environmental movement!” That would be, I’m afraid, more of the same. When I asked Bamuthi about a phrase I had heard him use elsewhere, “energetic reciprocity,” he said, simply, “Performance isn’t much of anything unless you have an audience willing to give.” To give. And that, perhaps, is the answer that red, black & GREEN provides. The answer that is as much question as it is answer. Throughout the performance, and long after, I realized I felt as though I was being listened to. I felt as though the play was listening to me. Formally, structurally, this was a performance that required — demanded — our participation, that invited us into conversation and was not, in fact, even possible without our participation. Whether in the set that beckoned us, or in the monologues gathered from others, or in the call to which we responded, “Belief is black!” we were necessary. red, black & GREEN models for us, then, inclusion; it models believing in the necessity of each and every one of us. It shows us how to listen. Which is the most important thing — whether for an environmental movement, a neighborhood, or a household — that we can do.