At the beginning of Marc Bamuthi Joseph's Word Becomes Flesh five men lie face down on the floor, their arms linked, legs extended out, their bodies heaving as they inhale and exhale like one large, multi-limbed organism struggling to be born. Over the course of the next hour they boast, brag, and beg. They reveal secrets and fears, confess and deny, and pass down their hopes for their future children. And they run. A lot. Because as Bamuthi Joseph tells the audience in the script, "Every day begins with a black man on the run."
In trying to describe this wonderfully inventive and innovative work, it's tempting to describe Word Becomes Flesh as hip-hop theater, a choreo-poem, or some other hyphenated combination that tries to capture its use of movement and sound. Those are accurate descriptions, but they could potentially put off certain audience segments, especially older, white audiences who might feel they can't identify with the subject matter. That would be a damn shame, because while this work speaks of, and to, the American black male experience, the sophistication of its construction and quality of execution make it essential viewing for anyone interested in theater and culture.
Nearly every word that flows from the actors' mouths uses the meter of rap music, often in twisting, elaborately constructed couplets served up at 100 miles an hour. The play began as a solo spoken word performance by Bamuthi Jospeph back in 2003, and while those roots show, it's hard to imagine how one man could bring everything here to the level of expression delivered by the five tremendously gifted actors in this encore presentation of Theater Alliance's award-winning production that won 5 Helen Hayes Awards, including Outstanding Production of a Play, Outstanding Director, and Outstanding Ensemble. The original team reprises their work, including director Psalmayene 24 and the ensemble cast of Justin Weaks, Gary Perkins III, Clayton Pelham Jr., Chris Lane, and Louis E. Davis.
The results are a raw, often funny, poignant, and probing look at the strengths and weaknesses of black masculinity and the culture that defines it, inside and out. It's an examination of fathers and sons, base desires and noble dreams, resentments and redemption. That all of this unfurls within an hour and manages to leaves the audience feeling enlightened as well as entertained is no small miracle. Consider it essential theater, not to be missed.
Word Becomes Flesh, a production of Theater Alliance, runs through October 8 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. Tickets are $40, and there are at least 10 "name-your-own price" performances.
The encore production is part of Theater Alliance's Word Becomes Action Festival, which showcases new works by local playwrights addressing the African diaspora. The particpating artists "interrogate the most provocative social issues, providing audiences space for inquiry, reflection, and thought. The goals of each post-show discussion move past simple conversation by linking audiences directly with local nonprofits that provide resources to a number of communities here in DC. Audiences will transform words into tangible actions that make real change!" View the schedule and performance details here.