The Word Begins: Rogue Machine Theatre, 7/16/11

22 07 2011

Broadway in Israel 2011. Friday, June 17: After lunch, we loaded the bus and headed to Sahne (or Gan Hashlosha), a warm spring ranked as one of the 20 most beautiful sites in the world in Time magazine. I was less impressed than I had been with Ein Gedi, but perhaps this was because of all the trash in the water; I chose not to swim, but to wander the park and chat instead. Manny pulled me aside a couple of times: to show me a young Arab man praying beside a bus, and to point out the Jews and Arabs swimming together here. The Arab women wore their full, black burkas in the water. The place was at peace. And that was perhaps the most beautiful part of it.

The day before, F16 fighter pilots charged over the Dead Sea. But at Sahne, Arabs and Jews swam together. And in the kibbutz earlier that day, our guide Sarah told us how their kibbutz shared farming developments with their neighbors in Jordan – the use of barn animals to control rodents. These acts of negotiation and cooperation on local levels are oftentimes overlooked – and rarely, if ever, shown in the media.

Violence cuts across the walls in The Word Begins; sirens blare as iconic images of bloodshed and warfare, political figures and propaganda are projected larger than life onto the graffiti-covered set. The media continually broadcasts this reminder: we are at war.

But onstage at Rogue Machine Theatre, writer/performers Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews – in the flesh – are negotiating towards peace. If we are at war, they say, then we are at war with ourselves — because the barriers among nations, races, genders, and religions are our own constructions. Through a uniquely theatrical blend of spoken word, hip-hop, and stand-up comedy, Connell and Andrews reclaim “the word” to proclaim an invigorating and empowering humanist message.

The show’s push for social justice can verge on the didactic, but Connell and Andrews’ vignettes cut across an impressive array of issues, from racism to sexism to religion – usually with equal parts entertainment and instruction. Connell and Andrews teach the men in the audience how to woo their women with poetry: attentive, meaningful words rather than the pre-printed language on a Hallmark card. Connell parodies a white, hyper-sexualized rapper while Andrews plays a tough hip-hop star loaded with bling; these exaggerated but all-too-familiar characters are made to account for their sexist and violent rhetoric. Corwin Evans’ vibrant video design offers crisp and provocative breaks between vignettes and elevate Connell and Andrews’ poetry to a global scale.

Connell and Andrews feed off one another in a dynamic performance that continually expands and contracts in energy, sometimes holding the audience rapt in fits of laughter before moving them to awestruck thought. Under Robert Egan’s clean direction, the performers explore the expanse of the stage and the audience, keeping the crowd constantly engaged and interactive. And at the show’s heights, the feeling of “instruction” falls away, leaving pure poetry in its wake. The syncing of time in some of Connell and Andrews’ joint spoken word – requiring listening alongside speaking, miniscule negotiations of one voice against another – is an inspiring message unto itself.

“Until you imagine a better world, you cannot have it.” In The Word Begins, Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews not only imagine a better world, but create a theatrical space where that utopian imaginary can actually come into being — even if only for the span of a 90 minute show. I was inspired as much by the onstage performance as by the packed house at Rogue Machine last Saturday night: a young, diverse, artistically and politically charged community that “braved Carmageddon” to gather. In fact, the only thing lacking for me was a post-show talkback. I wanted to listen to the array of audience responses. I wanted to speak, to carry the conversation beyond the span of the show.

But that is why I had to write this review. And that is why I will likely be returning another weekend soon. Join me.

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23 07 2011
THE WORD BEGINS: 100% – SWEET : Bitter Lemons

[…] SWEET But onstage at Rogue Machine Theatre, writer/performers Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews – in the flesh – are negotiating towards peace. If we are at war, they say, then we are at war with ourselves — because the barriers among nations, races, genders, and religions are our own constructions. Through a uniquely theatrical blend of spoken word, hip-hop, and stand-up comedy, Connell and Andrews reclaim “the word” to proclaim an invigorating and empowering humanist message. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

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