The set design for red, black and GREEN: a blues, at MCA Chicago has a name. It’s called The Colored Museum, and it exists in its own right as an installation, set on view at the MCA while the multimedia performance it was created for ran in the evenings this weekend. It’s a series of layered, patchwork clapboard rooms, each representative of one of four cities: Chicago, New York, Oakland, Houston, with built-in video installations and musical elements– that is, good things to hit and create a beat. It’s the work of Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, and it is available to up-close inspection during the first act of the show, also called The Colored Museum, in when the audience is invited onstage.
The layered rhythm of the show closely resembles the structure of the rooms themselves. At the start, the set is boxed into a shotgun-house shape at the center of the stage, the audience wandering around and watching action thought the windows. Marc Bamuthi Joseph hands out slices of watermelon while Traci Tolmaire moves like liquid through the house. The chimes, steel poles and wooden boxes get a musical beatdown, with rhythms created by performer Tommy Shepherd, as the rooms pull apart and the cast throw themselves into full body-swinging tribal dance. Theaster Gates delivers a kind of Social Practice Manifesto (Art without Ethics is Bad Art) to the encircled crowd. It’s clear that what we’re negotiating here is complex, involving not just issues of black identity in America, environmental justice, and mixed media, but the basic struggle to do good in the world while staying true to yourself.
That struggle is beautifully and honestly evident in the monologues delivered by Marc Bamuthi Joseph in the second act of the show, Colors and Muses, in which we return to our usual auditorium seating. The text is based on Joseph’s experiences producing eco-festivals in the four featured cities, and includes re-performed interviews with local residents encountered en route (stunning work by Tolmaire), as well as Joseph’s attempts to, for instance, explain what the Black Panthers were to his nine-year-old son. Joseph confesses that his “ghetto pass” expired some seven years ago, and his words reveal an activist caught between the tofu-praying hyper-green Bay Area culture, the “czar of everything green in Harlem” (fuck Starbucks!), a wino turned Flower Man, and a Sudanese woman living on American soil who unselfconsciously offers him watermelon.
The show offers no easy answers, concluding that its own activists, like the Black Panthers, might just not be around as much in 40 years, and that the world will inevitably change. But it gets there through a striking blend of musicality, dance, narrative and documentation. It seeks to explore the results of its own research in a phenomenally honest way, a way that is not overly concerned with the blurring of disciplines in its work, the danger of racial stereotypes, or the portrayal of its artists as anything other than (aesthetically skilled) humans. The piece concludes with Back Talk, when each of the performers takes up residence in a room onstage and invites the public back up to chat, ask questions and engage in dialogue. The energized public, not your usual somber modern-art crowd, lingered, and filled the house with excited chatter.