Baltimore Performance Kitchen asks a lot from the audience
Published: October 29, 2012
Written by LOVE the Poet, Bashi Rose, and Vincent Thomas
Presented by the Baltimore Performance Kitchen at Arena Players through Nov. 4
Red Flags makes a huge wager when the house lights go up a little over an hour into its running time. The three creators/performers—spoken-word artist/musician LOVE the poet (aka Michelle Antoinette Nelson); filmmaker/theater director Bashi Rose; and dancer/choreographer Vincent Thomas—stand onstage taking in audience applause. It’s hard-won praise: Flags is an abstract journey, less narrative theater than thematic collage of voice and music, movement, and multimedia installation, and more than once during the production you might find yourself recognizing the overarching motifs while searching for the glue holding it altogether. And then comes the quiet shocker: When first entering the theater, every audience member is given a piece of red paper, a Sharpie marker, and a card that says “personal,” “political,” or “spiritual.” These are the necessity materials for finishing the play. Yes, that’s right: You’re part of the production.
Back in 2000’s The Original Kings of Comedy, Steve Harvey skewered hip-hop MCs’ custom of asking people to raise their hands in the air or of calling for somebody to scream. “I paid $38.50,” Harvey lamented. “Damn it, you scream.” It’s a joke rooted in the generational divide separating Motown from Def Jam, but it also effortlessly captured the reluctance that comes with that directive which every arts organization wrestles with, audience engagement: How to get we, the people, to feel involved? The question emerges from economic worry; there’s a very pronounced line from the proverbial asses in seats to programming that runs directly through arts organization’s economic models. And when organizations—museums, symphonies, theater companies, whatever—make efforts to “connect” with their “communities,” it can often feel like a fundraising effort at best or a condescending, eat-your-broccoli strategic move at worst.
The recently formed Baltimore Performance Kitchen is navigating this engagement sea too; how it’s choosing to do so is a bit novel. Founded by former Single Carrot Theatre co-founder Buck Jabailly, with support from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, BPK anchors its endeavor in the audience experience. It invites audiences into the creative process, which sounds as crazy as it does impractical. Anybody who has ever submitted a publication redesign, feature movie, television pilot, or manuscript to preview-scrutiny knows that the best way to get 1,000 wildly different thoughts on what you’re doing is to ask 10 random people. There’s no pleasing all the people all the time.
But maybe the goal isn’t to please everybody. Maybe the goal isn’t to think of people as potential audience members and try to figure out what they want you to give them. Maybe the goal is to encourage people to take part in what you’re doing. Maybe the goal is to invite people to feel like creators, not like a consumers.
That’s the hand Red Flags extends. As conceived by Nelson, Rose, and Thomas, “red flags” are those ideas, topics, or feelings that get under the skin and scratch at the core of who we are. In a series of pre-performance video interviews, a number of speakers talked about their red flags, from the prison-industrial complex to Obama being the new face of corporate fascism. These video segments, which return about halfway through the performance, calibrate the brain for what’s to come: a multimedia immersion into personal storytelling.
Soon Rose, marking a steady cadence on a drum kit, and Thomas, dancing and carrying a red flag, take the stage. Nelson wanders into the room from offstage, softly speaking “wake up,” a whisper that grows into an imperative. All three wear jeans, red T-shirts, and hoodies. The stage is empty, save the drum kit, a pair of guitars, and amps to one side, and a screen at the back. Flags is ascetically basic, aiming for emotive territory not rooted in visual opulence.
What happens for about an hour is a bit inchoate. Nelson delivers a spoken-word performance as Rose drums and Thomas dances, and the three individual performances only kinda-sorta gel into a graspable whole. Individually they’re amazing: If you’ve never seen Nelson perform, you may marvel at the intensity of might this petite woman packs. Thomas is one of those movement artists whose every gesture suggests a feeling, many of which prompt the brain to rifle through memories. And Rose keeps mean time for a man more comfortable behind the camera; one of his shorts forms a brief interlude between the first and second halves of the show.
That second half is when Red Flags starts thwarting expectations. After retreating offstage during the video interlude, the three principals slouch back out, holding newspapers above their heads, as if futilely shielding themselves from a downpour. They slap the papers down, open their pages, and begin tossing them into the air. Rose takes his place behind the kit and starts to carve out a shaking pulse; Thomas retrieves a gospel-choir robe, wraps it around Nelson, picks her up, and places her atop a box, her face reaching an elevated microphone, as if she were speaking from an altar. Thomas drifts to center stage, among the scattered newspapers, and begins a jerking choreography as Nelson launches into a pyrotechnic spoken-word piece about love, sexuality, religion, and family. The segment becomes Flags’ lone striking moment but the sentiment is clear: when they all get on the same page, the cumulative effect is sublime.
And it’s that moment that segues into the participatory segment. Each of the three creator/performers takes a section of the audience and leads a brief workshop riffing on the themes of the production. People talk, ideas are discussed, and then each group comes back with group-conceived act. Thomas’ group created a series of gestural movements; Nelson’s group put together a three-word spoken mantra; Rose’s group made a cadence tapped out on body and voice. They get presented to the reassembled entire audience, and they get folded into a single performance that the three cast members coach the audience through in unison. Yes, it’s cheesy. Yes, it’s silly. And, yes, it makes you feel incredibly self-conscious if you weren’t prepared to play with others. It also somehow works better than it has right to. No idea if Red Flags and BPK can nail this sort of high-wire act at each and every performance, but that it’s even going to try is the sort of fearless rethink of what audience engagement could be that’s going to make following BPK’s no-safety-net programming worthwhile.
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