'Scourge' examines Haiti in explosive, fluid fashion
Marc Bamuthi Joseph may have been born and raised in Brooklyn, but some part of his soul still resides in Haiti, the land of his ancestors. In his multimedia "Scourge," presented in its Boston premiere over the weekend by CRASHarts, Joseph's story spills out in the rhythmic stomp of feet, a fusillade of drumbeats, aching vocals, and vivid poetry that captures the issues and emotions of assimilation with a potent urgency. If it's a bit raw and unruly at times, with expletives flying freely, this 75-minute, perfectly paced work of dance theater is sharpened by its heartfelt integrity.
A dynamite trio of musicians sets the tone in an opening overture that ranges from modal, Middle Eastern-sounding melodies to percolating Afro-Caribbean rhythms to drummer Tommy Shepherd's funky, beat-box rhapsody. Music director/composer Ajayi Jackson not only commands the keyboards, he plays a mean bassoon, wailing a soulful blues that sounds like a tenor sax waiting to be born.
Joseph and poet/spoken word artist Dahlak Brathwaite provide the work's narrative arc, while dancers Delina Brooks, Amara Tabor-Smith, and Adia Whitaker join the nimble, expressive Joseph in bringing movement to the story. Fabulous choreography by Whitaker, hip-hop veteran Rennie Harris, and Stacey Printz evokes African-based movement -- skittery footwork under sinuous torsos, thrusting pelvises, pumping arms, shimmying shoulders, and the slaps and stomps of juba dances. Occasionally break-dance moves weave through, and at one point the dancers simply drop to their knees and pound the floor.
Periodically, the backdrop flares with documentary-style Haiti footage: scenes from a riot, a funeral, the sweet, sad face of a little boy. It is intentionally coarse, but tremendously effective.
As directed by Kamilah Forbes, all of this is beautifully and seamlessly integrated, with the words forming the connective tissue. They range from autobiographical revelation to dissertations on issues that continue to confront America's disenfranchised. "My childhood smelled of cold steel and sweat," Bamuthi recalls in telling his own story as a first-generation American born of a family from Haiti. He calls the country "the first independent black nation that is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere."
Then he gracefully embraces more universal concerns, exploring what he calls the "gospels" according to race, to grief, to possession, to "the other side." One moment eloquent speeches unfurl with the impassioned fervor of a Baptist minister. The next, lines career through feelings and ideas with the whiplash energy of slam poetry. Joseph riffs on voodoo with biting, clever wordplay, and Brathwaite unleashes a scathing, darkly irreverent rant on the social politics of the N-word, his shifting perspective signaled by flipping the brim of his cap.
But mostly there is a quiet tone of reason underlying the heartbreak and resignation. And gratifyingly, there is also hope. "I'm a witness to the possibility," Joseph intones. "A change will come simply because it has to."