Last Thursday, UMass hosted a performance of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s hip-hop theater production, Word Becomes Flesh. Combining spoken word, dance, poetry, and music, Word Becomes Flesh is an exploration of black male identity in the 21st century. More specifically, the performance tells the story of a single black woman’s pregnancy through the lens of the father, getting into each and every corner of his mind and thus deconstructing the psychology of black fathers. The raw physicality and unadulterated emotion of the performance was absolutely staggering; I’ve come to think of race in America in an entirely different light.
Let’s start with the title: Word Becomes Flesh derives its name from the Biblical verse John 1:14. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Immediately, the performance adopts religious overtones, though the performance itself is not overtly religious. Instead, there are references to “word becoming flesh” in a more pragmatic sense. The unborn son becomes flesh, as we learn through the words of his father. The absent father urges his son to be a better parent than he is, hoping that his words will shape new flesh in a beneficial way.
Much of the performance is concerned with exploring the relationship between black men and their families, especially the cyclic pattern of poverty and absence that afflicts so many families. “Nothing will disrupt a man’s principles like the scent of potential sex striding through the summer heat beneath my window,” the father bitingly says, satirizing the conception of black men as unfaithful, but also clarifying that masculine desires are universally flawed.
And yet, the closeness that is inherent in families is not ignored. “Today, I heard your heartbeat. And it hit me right behind my knees and buckled me… Birthing you is my process too.” The mood of the piece is one of love and attachment conflated unwillingly with distance and absence. No father, regardless of race, wants to be removed from his child, and when teenage boys are thrust into situations they are unready for, cycles of absence and running emerge. Joseph asserts that black men have to learn how to run to remain free, and each succeeding generation finds itself stumbling into the same actions and mistakes of the previous one.
For me, the most striking visual image in the performance occurred toward the end. No words were spoken; instead, four silent tableaus were created in quick succession. First, the five men on stage gathered together in a tightly knit group and raised their arms as though being arrested. Then, the five men pretended to be adjusting neckties while smiling widely. Thirdly, they raised their arms in a mock basketball jump shot. Finally, the scene ended with the performers acting out suicide, tightening imaginary nooses around their necks and hanging themselves. What do black men have to live for in a society that systematically marginalizes them? “Every day begins with a black man on the run,” says the father, so who can blame him for trying to escape?
“Black boy”, the figures call out, “Native son, invisible man: there’s a war going on outside. And this is where your training begins.” And there really are wars being waged in America, and not just against black men. Yes, black households have incomes of just over half as much as white households. Black households still have, on average, a cumulative wealth of a tiny fraction of that of their white counterparts. But the war is being waged on women, too. The question circling around my mind throughout the performance was, If this is a piece about a pregnancy, why are there no women on stage? Is it not the ultimate marginalization to tell someone else’s story without even including them in it? And how does a piece of art justify telling the story of a pregnancy without even acknowledging the other half of the pregnancy itself? Don’t get me wrong, Word Becomes Flesh mentions the mother of the child, but it is often in vague references that do disservice to the shared gravity of pregnancy.
As a brown man, it’s easy for me to get caught up in my own racial problems. It’s easy to think that white people require the most education on racial issues, but I disagree with that notion. Being of Pakistani descent in post-9/11 America has blinded me to the wars being waged against people of other races in the 21st century, simply because I pay more attention to my own problems. If nothing else, Word Becomes Flesh was eye-opening and didactic. I learned so much about inner-city culture, about the cycle of poverty, and about the ways in which pop culture influence individual behavior. As an Amherst student, I need to be more aware of diversity, and Word Becomes Flesh was a big step in that direction.
More importantly, I realized as I stepped out of the auditorium that this is exactly what I came to Amherst for. I chose this school largely because I felt it would challenge me, expose me to thoughts and ideas that I had never before considered, and make me passionate about things I had previously dismissed. I’ve already had some growing pains, especially working as a new AC Voice writer, and I’ve been forced to think in ways I had never let myself think before. For that I am grateful, and I applaud Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s chillingly lifelike tale of black culture, masculinity, and fatherhood for bringing me out of my shell a little more.