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Why are there so many black men in American prisons? From the age of seventeen, black men in the US are no longer seen so much as racially profiled. In The Just and the Blind, spoken-word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph addresses his son. With his poetic monologue – supported by dance, fragments from interviews, video clips, song and violin – he explores the topic of institutional racism in the US. Why does he need to warn his son that “your mission is to survive”? His words get a historical echo in sung fragments from an open letter in defence of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King wrote while imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. A poignant musical indictment.
How does a black boy become an American man in the US? How does he learn to play his role? And what if part of this role consists of him keeping a low profile, because someone somewhere might
mistake him for a monster in the dark? The Just and the Blind takes on these and other pressing questions, that are deeply rooted in the institutionalised racism of the United States. Spoken-word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph uses powerful, autobiographically tinged poetry to address, among other people, his sixteen-year-old son. At the core is a heart-breaking message: come home safe, boy!
The fruitful collaboration between Marc Bamuthi Joseph and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain has generated a number of remarkable and acclaimed productions. Both have Haitian-American backgrounds, and for both of them social activism is inextricably bound up with their artistic work. Both are also fathers, and in The Just and the Blind, they focus sharply on racial profiling as something which every black boy will experience from puberty, when ‘all the traces of little-black-boy cuteness have disappeared’. Inevitably, over their heads hangs the hard statistical fact that one in four black men goes to prison.
The Just and the Blind plays out against a background of black-and-white images of civil-rights protests and heavy-handed police intervention and colour photos of fathers and children. In this multimedia work, spoken word, music and projections go hand in hand with dance and song. Drew Dollaz, a pioneer in the streetdance genre known as flexing, adds his own dimension and interpretation to Bamuthi’s words with his amazing language of movement. Shishani, who is Namibian and Belgian from origin, but grew up mainly in the Netherlands, will present songs by Roumain, based on Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Every part of this work shows a different side of a contradictory situation with which Bamuthi is also struggling. He talks about his own experiences with racial profiling, but also catches himself feeling uneasy one evening when he encounters three of those young men – men like his son, like he was once – on the street. It is the ineradicable self-hatred of an adult black man who is scared of the shadow of his youth. At the same time, every fibre of his being is focused on navigating his son safely through the American judicial system. In The Just and the Blind this aim is sometimes expressed through music, sometimes through movement, but more often a combination of all the elements. This joint effort is a compelling portrait of black parenthood and American justice. The New York Times described the performance as ‘the raw, cry from the soul new work.‘
Daniel Bernard Roumain, better known as DBR, has been active as a composer, violinist, performer, teacher and ‘social entrepreneur’ for over twenty years. He studied composition at the University
of Michigan and has taught at Arizona State University and other institutions. His multifaceted music is characterised by violin playing full of electronic, urban and African-American influences. The range of artists with whom he has worked is equally wide, including Philip Glass, Bill T. Jones and Lady Gaga, and many renowned institutions and orchestras.
He has composed commissioned works for the American Composers Orchestra (Harlem Essay for Orchestra, 2000), the Boston Pops Orchestra (Woodbox Violin Concerto), Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR (We March!: Concerto for Guitar and String Orchestra)) and Carnegie Hall in New York. In 2017 his chamber opera We Shall Not Be Moved (with a libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and directed by Bill T. Jones) was hailed by The New York Times as ‘the best classical performance of 2017’. This work was also one of the highlights of the Dutch National Opera’s 2018 Opera Forward Festival. In March 2019 The Just and the Blind had its premiere in Carnegie Hall, another collaboration with Marc Bamuthi Joseph. A few months later the two also created Cipher, a kind of mini-opera based on conversations with incarcerated youth, for the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale.
DBR is also busy off the concert and opera stages. He was nominated for an Emmy award for his compositions for American sports network ESPN, has been a keynote speaker at conferences on technology and has created large-scale, site-specific musical events for public spaces.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a spoken word artist and a writer of librettos and plays. In his poetic works, he explores social issues and cultural identity, and in doing so he maintains an unshakeable faith in empathy as a community’s most important element. He was a TED Global Fellow in 2017 and one of the first artists to be supported by the new Guggenheim Social Practice initiative. His awards include the prestigious United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship.
His full-length production red, black & GREEN: a blues from 2011 was nominated for a Bessie Award in 2013. He toured with his work peh-LO-tah, in which football (aka soccer) is the focus, to great acclaim throughout North America, including a performance at the 2017 Next Wave Festival. He also wrote the libretto to Home in 7 for the Atlanta Ballet and worked with composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and director/choreographer Bill T. Jones on We Shall Not Be Moved (2017). This collaborative relationship with Roumain continues in The Just and The Blind. He is currently working on In His Name, inspired by the way in which the religious community in Charleston coped with the bloody attack in 2015.
Bamuthi is the programme director of the non-profit organisation Youth Speaks and co-founder of Life is Living, a national series of one-day-long festivals that revitalise neglected cityn parks. His essays have been published by Harvard Education Press. He is currently the vice president and artistic director for social impact with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Drew Dollaz is a pioneer of flexing, a form of street dance originating in Brooklyn, also known as ‘bone breaking’, in which limbs move rhythmically in all directions. Dollaz mixes flexing with other dance forms such as ballet, creating an a new artistic movement genre. His performance in Madonna’s MDNA World Tour in 2012 introduced flexing to a larger and world-wide audience. He has drawn over a million YouTube views with his New York collective Next Level Squad, and he has performed on television shows such as America’s Got Talent.
Besides Madonna, Dollaz has worked with a variety of other artists such as Rihanna and Skrillex, and for major brands such as Red Bull, Sony, Aloft Hotels and Billboard. Dollaz has been touring through the United States with The Just and The Blind, which he choreographed, since its premiere in 2019. To supplement this live production, three short films were made to draw more attention to the subject of the performance. One of these films, About Face, featuring a brilliant performance by Dollaz, won the Best Short Dance Film award at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in 2019.
Last year, Dollaz gave an enthusiastic audience of over 70,000 at the Sziget Festival in Budapest a foretaste of his latest work, which will premiere in 2020, a piece about bullying called #IMPERFECT (a play on ‘I'm perfect’ and ‘imperfect’). In everything he does, Dollaz is focused on arts education and helping young people find their strength. He supports and guides young dancers and gives masterclasses all over the world.
Shishani means ‘crown’ in Oshiwambo, one of Namibia's native languages. Singer-songwriter Shishani’s roots are Namibian and Belgian in origin, but she grew up mainly in the Netherlands. In her work she bring these worlds together. Her unique vocal style has been influenced by Afro-American and African music traditions. Her music is comforting and has a thread of strong social consciousness running through it. She is founder of Miss Catharsis (2019), an all-female group voicing stories by women of colour. And she is co-founder of Namibian Tales (2015) an acoustic quartet delving into the musical heritage of Namibia. Shishani has performed internationally at Glastonbury Festival (UK), Afrika Festival Wurzburg (Germany), Amsterdam Roots Festival, Lake of Stars (Malawi) and various countries including France, Czech Republic, Poland, Ireland, Greece, Italy, India, Morocco, Moldova, Latvia, South Korea, China, Jordan, Kenya, South Africa, and her home countries, Netherlands, Belgium and Namibia.
- concept, text
- Marc Bamuthi Joseph
- Daniel Bernard Roumain
- Michael John Garcés
- choreography, dance
- Drew Dollaz
- design projections, light
- David Szlasa
- Lisa Armstrong
- Xia Gordon
- Sozo Artists Inc
- commissioned by
- Carnegie Hall
- presented as part of 2019 Create Justice Forum
- production partner
- Sozo Impact Fund
- Silicon Valley Community Foundation
- with aid of
- Ford Foundation
- special thanks to
- Miami Light Project