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Impresario of the Undefinable

Dance? Music? Poetry? Marc Bamuthi Joseph is brewing up something unique at YBCA.

Some of Marc Bamuthi Joseph's relentlessly diverse artistic endeavors.

Read more from the Fall Arts Preview from our September 2017 issue here.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph gets around a lot these days. In the past year, he’s been in New York, performing his latest hit mélange of spoken word and movement; in Philadelphia, collaborating with modern dance giant Bill T. Jones on a new opera; and in Southern California, developing a new play at the South Coast Repertory theater. But it’s here, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, that his influence is the strongest.

Joseph, the dancer-actor-activist once named a Top Young Innovator by Smithsonian magazine, is now entering his fifth year with YBCA, where he first worked as the director of performing arts and now serves as its first-ever chief of program and pedagogy—a title he acknowledges is the result of “what happens when you let a poet name themselves.” If his role seems broad and undefined, well, that’s appropriate: Joseph has made his name through a relentlessly diverse range of artistic endeavors, from poetry (he’s a national slam champion) to dance to motivational speaking (he was recently named a TEDGlobal fellow). However, to hear him tell it, his mission for YBCA is as straightforward as it is ambitious: to transform the campus from simply a host for touring companies into something more, in his words, “activated.”

Signs of that change can be seen in this fall’s YBCA Transform Fest, a weeklong series of dance performances by 10 Bay Area companies and choreographers, taking place September 14–23. The theme is “Why citizenship?”—a question that’s taken on new urgency after first emerging during the last YBCA 100 Summit, held in 2015. At that event, Joseph asked attendees to respond to the keynotes by artists Carrie Mae Weems and Theaster Gates. “We had hundreds of questions,” he says, among them “Can we design freedom?,” “What does equity look like?,” and, ultimately, “Why citizenship?” “In 2015, could we have anticipated a Trump administration?” Joseph asks. “No, but now we’re asking artists to respond to a question that’s been alive for all of us the last two years.”

As is typical of any Joseph production, the responses are sure to be profoundly varying. Amy Seiwert is a ballet choreographer who doesn’t typically broach social inquiry in her formally exacting work. On the other end of the spectrum, Jesse Hewit is a provocateur whose physically ragged dance theater directly confronts audiences with conundrums of racism and privilege. Among the other participants are the female drag queen impersonator Fauxnique and the self-described underground dance theater group Fogbeast.

Joseph’s broad collection of influences goes way back. He was raised in Queens by Haitian immigrant parents—his father worked retail in the Trump Tower Tiffany’s, while his mother was a nurse. Joseph was dually formed by the 1980s crucible of New York City hip-hop and child acting (he understudied for tap legend Savion Glover in The Tap Dance Kid). He attended an affluent, mostly white private school in Manhattan, then accepted a full ride to Atlanta’s historically black Morehouse College, where he was equally serious about Etheridge Knight and Outkast. A teaching fellowship brought him to Marin County after graduation, and he lived in Bernal Heights and Hunters Point before settling in Oakland with his wife, a kindergarten teacher, and their now 15-year-old son.

It was in Oakland that Joseph first gained acclaim for hip-hop theater, including Scourge (commissioned by YBCA in 2005) and his mixtape-inspired history of hip-hop, The Break/s (2008). In 2008, he produced the first Life Is Living Festival, a daylong Oakland celebration of urban environmentalism that included everything from mural painting to petting zoos. To see the lineups he curates is to conclude that he knows practically everyone. “What I see him working to do is build a movement,” says Deborah Cullinan, who became chief executive officer of YBCA two years after Joseph began there. His only pitfall, she says, is that his ideas are always shifting. But at heart, “he’s a community builder.”

But he’s also a performer—with a jam-packed schedule. This month, Joseph will be preparing his latest show, /pe-LO-tah/, for runs in Chicago and New York, as well as collaborating with Jones on the opera in Philadelphia. (Joseph wrote the libretto.) “I’m going to miss my own premiere to be at the Transform Fest,” he says, laughing away any suggestion that he’s mixing his priorities. “Marketing, outreach—those are about getting butts in seats. What I’m interested in is making culture better.”


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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