In the beginning, there was the Word—mere symbols that helped mankind communicate. Now that I’ve grown into adulthood, I find that I am faced with more people who incessantly asking ask me political, social, and cultural question after question. Most of the time, they are older and wiser than myself, so I listen and nod to what their opinion is on the multitude of aspects humanity faces. Most of the time, they rarely ask my thoughts on the matter—as if they were just waiting for someone to listen for a moment, and being a journalist, I seem a worthy candidate. I don’t nod and smile because I necessarily feel the same sentiments, but rather because I respect their right to have those sentiments, as long as they are morally just. When I do open my mouth, I tread gently because I respect my elders and understand that the potential to gain wisdom and perspective lies in the older generations.
However, when I entered the intimate South Coast Repertory at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts to watch the spoken-word dramatic piece called, The Word Begins, I felt that by the end, most of what I would say to the Republicans, the Liberals, the Atheists, the Agnostics, the over-zealous, and the detached were expressed by the two talented artists, Steve Connelly and Sekou Andrews, during their incredibly potent mix of short scenes that ran continually back-to-back for over an hour straight.
Inside of the blacked-out theater, seating was limited, and to show up only somewhat early meant there would be a struggle to find a spot. After locating an available chair to inhabit, I scan my eyes over the crowd to discover a diverse mix of individuals in attendance. It’s unclear whether people were present because they had been attracted by the multi-show pass offered by the Off Center Festival, or merely by rumor of the astounding act that would proceed. Either way, the mix included both genders and varying ethnicities, making it the perfect combination for a potential branding focus group.
Lights dim to black, and we’re lost in the darkness for a moment—no individuality, only a congregation as one entity. I knew very little about what was in store, for my research had been minimal on the spoken-word act in hopes of facing a mystery that might pleasantly surprise. We wait patiently until side-stage lighting bursts brilliantly from slits of large black panels placed in rows lining the exterior of the space. A mature white and black man bolt out from the light and begin to dash around the stage like fireballs full of energy, spraying the first of their overzealous and passionate verbiage over an awkwardly stunned crowd. The two rush to the edge of the tiered seating and look up, “In the beginning, there was the Word and the Word was made flesh, and there were these four words: listen, stand, spit, begin.” Their hands and arms and bodies are poised and shifting rhythmically to the spoken beat that lies hidden in the syllables of their strings of sentences. The audience begins to relax as they start to feel comfort in the continued acquaintance with the two faces on stage. Both Andrews and Connell are completely immersed in the meaning in the wave of words projecting from their lips, washing upon the crowd.
Now fully captivated by the entertainers, the spectators sit attentively, absorbed in each culturally relevant scene. In order to reach the moral light at the end of the theatrical tunnel, we must first step through a web of skits. In one, a black man and a white man face each other, hidden in an alleyway, covered by the shade of night. They flicker aggressive words back and forth as the trembling white man, played by Connelly, yells of corruption and savageness toward his mugger, claiming he is a mere criminal with no right to kill another man. Religious groups, imperialistic governments, businessmen—they all kill, says the desperate black man to his prey. He continues by saying, what makes them any different from me? They kill in the name of a cause, so in the name of my sick daughter who needs medicine I can’t afford because of the unjust system, give me all your money or I will not hesitate to shoot you, Andrews cries. Lights dim for a scene change, and the audience is stunned by the tense stereotypical setup that is all too real in modern life.
Intermittently, two taboos topics—God and Love—are stripped apart intermittently until laid bare. One in particular displays the lack of true passion in this century, especially personal relationships. The setup: two men in a Hallmark store—one, an employee; the other, a customer. When the out-of-touch shopper, stuck with the choice between two cliché cards for his lover, asks for assistance, the clerk steps in and begins to freestyle romantic verse after verse—each poem having a theme to match different careers the customer may practice, like a doctor, lawyer, or astronaut. When the patron begins to grow weary, the clerk attempts to inspire the shopper to decree passionate words of his own to properly woo his one-and-only. Connelly convinces, claiming, “You see words—they’re like radioactive material—they’re powerful. If you’re not trained how to handle them safely, people can get hurt.” In this contemporary society, romance has been desensitized. While, logically, Love is only a chemical reaction between two entities, emotionally, it is the premise that binds humanity in a peaceful state. Without practicing words of respect—the most important aspect of Love—destruction will only come instead.
During the next chapter covering Racism in America, a game of juxtaposition is played in exposing the satirical transitions of whites and blacks over the last century. Connelly, labeled The Man, flows through characters like the religious bigot, preaching racist remarks, to the shades and suit-wearing corporate creep, to the current trend when young men dress and act more like Black rap artists bragging about bitches and bling. Instead of culturally digressing, the black man, named You People, works his way from a thug valeting The Man’s Mercedes, to a well-spoken, well-read, logical male who passionately speaks of the fact that an African America is now president of the United States. With a debonair air about him, facing the onlookers, he states, “Clearly the enemy is not racism. And frankly, I for one am just tired of pretending that it is…We are so conditioned to playing the victim, we are now our own worst enemies.” So yet again, the crowd is presented another modern cliché that is challenged from all sides.
Later in the evening, the solution to end racism is given by both men simultaneously: “Fuck ‘til everyone is beige!” After coming to the conclusion that one universal race can be achieved by all cultures procreating together, the two hosts invite all the women to come onstage to have sex with them. When giggles go up in the air, but the women stay put, Andrews and Connelly tell the ladies to remain seated if they are racist and don’t want to help end xenophobia. It is all a joke, but every last person feels a bit of tension in the truth of their statements. With everyone congealing in the melting pot, the need for borders, conflict, and war is no longer necessary.
For those individuals who are unable to compromise the gifts of their long-standing heritage, Andrews and Connelly offer the final solution to end all discrimination arguments. Returning to the conclusion of the mugger and victim caught in quarrel in the alleyway, the crowd is ready to witness an epiphany. The two men connect eye to eye, and realization hits:
“Two men standing in the night. One clenching rage in his palm, the other paralyzed with fear. Both are trembling, afraid of what they may lose if they don’t protect what the have: safety, family, this life they’ve built, this birth. And as so many others through our time, they find themselves killing, dying, struggling, trying to imagine there is a wrong way to live, there is a right way to die. The question pressing this moment comes screaming through the wall—You can’t imagine a better world that this?!
I can imagine my enemy like me. We will do what we have always done: kill, to sail off, make war upon people, build walls to escape. But if I can imagine my enemy like me, then the only way to protect myself from others, is to see myself in others. My only hope that they’ll do different is if I do different myself. Until you can imagine a better world, you cannot have it. The second you set your mind to imagining it, it can begin.”
Family, love, religion, culture, society, race and gender; these are the areas that Andrews and Connelly believe we, as humans, have failed to evolve completely. Humanity in America is “up against a wall,” divided in two, either in support or completely against this continuing cultural evolution. As I watched the two brilliant spoken-word poets speak passionately from so many different perspectives through the night, I felt that the thousands of words slipping smoothly off of their lips represented all the things I want to share out loud, but couldn’t comprehend constructing in a manner that my audience could properly absorb. Although The Word Begins displayed all the ideas and emotions I connect with during this age, there will always be a new aggressor with narrow ideas to combat forward-type thinking. But if we use our imaginations…