By Hamzat Sani, Special to the AFRO
“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed.
The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”
(Coates, Between the World and Me Pg. 9)
These words, uttered by Emmy Award winning and stage veteran Joe Morton, with a dramatic control arresting in its intensity and calculating delivery, set the tone of one of the most spectacular performances of literary artistry in recent memory.
Morton was one of nine narrators selected to present a live performance of the best-selling book Between the World and Me by MacArthur Genius Ta-Nehisi Coates at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, in collaboration with the Apollo Theater, on April 7.
The event blended jazz, hip hop, theatrical literary reading and creative visual effects to a level of mastery unparallelled and ingenious for such contemplative source material. Developed and directed by Kamilah Forbes, a former Howard classmate of Coates’ and Executive Producer of the Apollo, the 90 minute performance was a realization of an idea come to fruition.
After finishing the book at 3 a.m. in 2015, Forbes reached out to her former classmate to let him know that she was cooking up something for the stage.
The driving but spare soundscape for the performance was crafted by another MacArthur fellow Jason Moran. Moran gathered a trio of jazz accompaniment including drummer Nate Smith and Bassist Mimi Jones providing a melodic canvass for each readers narrative voice.
Forbes gathered a dream cast of narrators with their own inventive takes on Coates’ text. Morton’s voice on stage was all at once thrilling and ominous showcasing the depth of the Tony nominated actor.
Tariq Trotter, aka The Roots’ “Black Thought,” turned in a solid narrative performance enhanced by a cathartic rap monologue during the closest semblance of an intermission the performance allowed. His musical display led Coates to chide that he would trade every word of his book for the ability to possess such lyrical craftsmanship. Trotter riffed with Grammy nominated soul powerhouse Ledisi, who also lent an inspiring voice to her read.
A stand out amongst the narrators was Pauletta Washington whose charmingly sassy reading of Coates’ work was unforgettable. Turning in stellar performances were tap dancer Savion Glover, Librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, actor/art collaborator Greg Alverez Reid and Tony-nominated actress Michelle Wilson.
To the gleeful surprise of the audience, Coates closed out the reading with his characteristically somber and introspective tone, helming a stellar night of theatrics.
The most morose part of the night came after the cast had received its applause and was off stage as the backdrop began to display a list of names effectively discomforting in its length and continuum. In a night already filled with such grave issues, it discarded the audience’s sense of relief as a reminder that the subjects Coates wrestled in the letter to his son aren’t merely theoretical but indeed matters of life and death for the black body.