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Word Becomes Flesh – a community experience

Article by Bill Ibelle

The performance was stunning and the workshops enlightening, but the most important function of Word Becomes Flesh may have been to bridge the chasm that separates so many universities from the communities that surround them.

With a host of powerful themes—race, fatherhood, responsibility, ambition—the play is a mesmerizing blend of poetry and dance. Actors in the five-man cast take turns exploring the protagonist’s struggle to explain himself to his unborn son as he grapples with what it means to be a black man in modern America. His dilemma is complicated by the fact that the pregnancy was unplanned, and his relationship with the mother is far from certain.

Does he stay or run? Should he opt to commit or urge the mother to terminate the pregnancy? Does he communicate his complex emotions, or seal himself in a fortress of silence? These are just a few of the quandaries the protagonist struggles with as he explores his relationship with his father, with women, and with the history of racism.

“It was fantastic,” says Farai Williams, artistic director of Project Hip-Hop in Roxbury, Mass. “It was a wonderful piece for Northeastern to bring in and even more wonderful to extend it further by bringing the workshops out into the community.”

Project Hip-Hop, where one workshop was held, is a group that trains youths, ages 14 through 20, to use dance and street performance as a cultural tool to educate and motivate the community. It was one of three community organizations the actors visited during their weeklong residency at Northeastern.

Creating closer ties with surrounding neighborhoods is one of the top goals for Bree Edwards, the new director of Northeastern’s Center for the Arts.

“We wanted to kick off the center’s programming with this project because community engagement is a major part of this work,” she says. “This is a model for what artists can do. It’s about more than filling seats in the theater—it’s also about bringing the performance to where the people are.”

For many minority youths who attended the performance, seeing black men deal with these powerful emotions through poetry and dance was a watershed experience. 

“I had several kids come up to me afterward and say, ‘Finally, someone put into words what I have been experiencing,’” says Williams.

According to cast member Daveed Diggs, the point of the play isn’t how the protagonist answers these questions, but rather the process he goes through as he searches his soul to determine what kind of a man he really is.

“Most people in the audience have never seen five black men being emotionally available,” he told members of a gender relations class taught by postdoctoral teaching associate Jesica Speed. “That just doesn’t appear anywhere in pop culture.”

Cast member Khalil Anthony echoed this observation while speaking with the kids at Project Hip-Hop.

“When I was young, I didn’t know you could do that—share emotions and still be a man,” he told two dozen aspiring performers.

During sessions with two Northeastern classes and three community groups, cast members were extraordinarily open about both their craft and their personal response to the play.

Cast member Michael Wayne Turner III told a group of Boston teenagers that he had no relationship with his own father growing up and only saw the man during visits to prison. Then, a few years back, his girlfriend got pregnant. He was scared and didn’t know what to do.

“This play saved my life,” he said. “I wanted to be an actor, a dancer. But I realized that if I had this child, that was done—finished. I’d have to get a job and settle down. Or I could run away to Australia. I read this script 15 days before my son was born. It freed me to make a decision for myself and not based on what others wanted of me.”

Turner stayed. Three years later, his career is on the rise and he has a strong bond with his son.

Anthony, in contrast, explained to the mostly white female students in Speed’s gender relations class how it feels to grow up as a black man in a country where black sports heroes and performers are idolized, but ordinary young men are still feared. He said popular culture’s images of threatening black men are so pervasive that even he isn’t immune to them.

“I have been fearful of the black man myself because of the images I’ve been fed all my life,” he said. “I’ve found myself crossing the street when I see a black man coming. And I’m a black man! Man, this is crazy.”

Although the play is deeply personal—it was written by Marc Bamuthi Joseph in response to his own conflicted feelings about unexpected fatherhood—it elicits a deeply personal response from the audience as well.

“Everyone finds their own point of entry,” says Diggs, noting how the play is different from traditional theater.  “There is more of a communal feeling while you watch a play like this. Watching Chekhov is a solitary experience—it’s a story that’s being told to you. But in this play, the audience is a character. This show expects that and requires that. It’s not a nice and easy experience.”

This was clear from the reaction of the audience, which erupted at times with spontaneous shouts of approval, recognition, and appreciation. During Speed’s class, Turner described the parade of people who approach cast members after almost every show.

“People come up to us after the performance and they want to explain, to apologize—they want to be understood,” he says. “The performance touches something deep in them and they want to talk. It’s a conversation.”