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Marc Bamuthi Joseph

ARTICLE: Spoken Word Artist and Activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph speaks about his rendition of Carnival of the Animals

The Official Black Magazine

Michael Cox
August 16, 2023

La Jolla Music Society (LJMS) has co-commissioned a new work for SummerFest 2023, which will be held at The Conrad in La Jolla from July 28 to August 26, 2023. This exciting event is part of LJMS’s Synergy Initiative and features a reimagined version of Carnival of the Animals. The performance will explore the theme of shifting societal values and will be presented through the collaboration of spoken word artist and activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact at The Kennedy Center; Wendy Whelan, Associate Artistic Director of New York City Ballet; and Francesca Harper, Artistic Director of Ailey II, who is an acclaimed choreographer.

This project involves reimagining Saint-Saëns’ original animals and introducing new animals into the political ecosystem. This work brings the classical into the present context, 100 years after the original publication of the Carnival of the Animals. Every animal exists in a delicate balance between order and disorder within a complex tapestry of natural and socio-political systems. Harper skillfully incorporates Joseph’s portrayal of various animals such as butterflies, free birds, goats, and elephants into her physical poetry. Through this artistic expression, she brings to life and expands upon dynamic visions of hope, resilient examples, as well as thought-provoking experiences related to race, gender, and diverse perspectives on political figures and significant moments in recent history.

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Marc Bamuthi Joseph to get more insight into the production, his thought process behind it, and what he hopes the audience takes away from it.

Cox: I am curious about the inspiration behind your rendition of the production. Can you share where the idea originated from?

Joseph: Over the past five to six decades, the Carnival of the Animals has been performed in numerous renditions featuring a moderator. I have been commissioned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to fulfill that role.

Cox: Did being in DC influence the way you moderated this rendition?

Joseph: Precisely, I was intrigued by the idea of examining the animals through the lens of the political jungle. By doing this, I believed that I had created a performance that was both provocative and possessed a unique edge.

I was present in the capital on January 6th when the rioters forcefully entered the premises. You know, many people commonly refer to them as animals. I pondered the idea of Carnival of the Animals taking place in the rotunda on that particular day.

Cox: How would you characterize this politically charged environment teeming with diverse personalities?

Joseph: I would describe it as a system that emerged from a combination of chaos and freedom. When discussing elephants and donkeys, the metaphor becomes more vivid and impactful. When discussing the cuckoo in relation to the democratic process, it is akin to a repetitive cycle that seems to go in circles. There is a layering of political urgency that needs to be addressed.

Cox: Will this iteration be significantly distinct from the previous versions?

Joseph: I believe it is a unique and original creation that has not been previously attempted. There will be numerous fresh interpretations of the classics. The event will feature choreographed interventions by Wendy Whelan, the former principal ballerina of the New York City Ballet. The music and dance in this narrative reflect the atmosphere of DC on that day. When I discuss topics such as bulls or stampedes, there is a distinct atmosphere associated with them.

Cox: When it comes to music, how significant are the choices of songs and the overall flow in the production?

Joseph: Music serves as the driving force behind this production.

Cox: This production was a result of a collaborative effort. I would like to understand how you would describe your personal contribution.

Joseph: As the writer and narrative creator, my role is to bring coherence and structure to the work, ensuring that everything fits together seamlessly. This is to ensure that the different disciplines and artistic mediums are coherent and cohesive when combined. I serve as both the glue that holds the work together and, in many ways, the scaffolding that supports it.

Cox: Given the multitude of elements present in the play, including the music and political imagery, what specific emotions do you hope to evoke within the audience?

Joseph: The answer to that question will vary depending on your political beliefs. This piece explores the essence and potential of America. The music and art will hopefully inspire you to contemplate the fragility and greatness of democracy.

In the final piece of Carnival of the Animals, the goat is introduced. When you think of the term “GOAT,” Muhammad Ali or Serena Williams may come to mind. Can we consider the American Constitution as the greatest of all theories (GOAT)? The American Constitution is a significant theory, especially for a government that had not previously existed. America, in essence, is an idea.

The main point to remember is to have a unifying theme, hopefully. What unites us as Americans on this landmass? When are we at our safest? How can we ensure safety for one another in an American context?

Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle

One night only!
Friday August 18, 2023
7:30 PM

The Conrad 
7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla