Friday, May 9, 2008

The Sisyphus Syndrome

A jazz Opera by Amiri Baraka

Music by David Murray

Choreography Traci Bartlow

Eastside Cultural Center,

Oakland, CA

Review by Marvin X


Sisyphus is the Greek god condemned to roll the rock up the hill for eternity. Each time he ascended, he was blocked by the forces of evil and the rock fell to the ground. DuBois and others have used the Sisyphus myth-ritual to describe the history of North American Africans. Each generation that makes progress on the path to freedom is blocked by the forces of reaction and the next generation must reinvent the wheel of justice, freedom and self-determination. Amiri Baraka’s Opera takes us up the mountain and down in the manner of Sisyphus. He shows us the trials and tribulations of a people striving for dignity, only to be obstructed by evil, call it racism, imperialism, capitalism, slavery, whatever.

Baraka has always been our myth-maker, from the Dead Lecturer (poems),
Dutchman (play), A Black Mass (play) and Slaveship (play), not to mention numerous other works attacking, revising and transcending Western mythology to tell the story of our existence in this wilderness. The Sisyphus Syndrome is his most recent attempt to lecture us in the didactic manner of BAM (the Black Arts Movement). Sonia Sanchez asked, “Will Your book free us?” Baraka answers emphatically, “Yes.” He proceeds to describe the problem through the dramatic form called Opera, a utilization of voice, song, music, dance, set design, video and sound. Of course BAM drama is ritual theatre, the merging of actors and audience, thus it is communal—there is no audience but rather a community of people gathered to learn, to heal and transform. Baraka is the shaman who gathers his tribe around the village fire, yes, Round Midnight, to envision a new day. What happened, what should happen and what will happen if we finally get it right, if we understand events, symbols and signs, the blocks along the mountain path to freedom, the joys, the celebrations of victories, then defeat, depression, more oppression, but finally, in the transformation and ascension to the mountain top Dr. King preached about the night before his assassination, April 4, 1968. Baraka catalogues the history endured and victories celebrated. Sisyphus is thus a lesson from the wise elder, the healer, for finally, Baraka’s myth is about healing and love, unity and love. He gives a shout out to Muslims, Christians, Socialists, Communists, and vegetarians to unite in a Black United Front. The chorus tells us this, the poetry as well, sometimes recited by the poet himself.

His book of poetry is classic Baraka, abstract at times, plain and simple other times, but it is poetry that is didactic and lyrical. He thus returns theatre to the Shakespearean tradition of the poetic drama. But he transcends Shakespeare, with the elements of ritual, the energy of the Holy Ghost church. While the words instruct and inform, the dance and music take us to the deep down funk of our lives. Baraka would call it Funklore. In one tune we hear that funky Al Green beat. And there is a rendition of my favorite tune Round Midnight signaling a low moment in our history, maybe the betrayal of Reconstruction, the lynching, torture and terror of American genocide.

In the BAM tradition, David Murray weaves his music as a weapon of freedom, literally using his horn as a device to check the devil, the forces of evil. David does a dance with Skelekin. We see the role of musician as shaman, protector of the tribe. We see the people’s army marching and dancing to music. The music once again propels us up the mountain, sometimes it is a gentle nudge, sometimes a shout, a scream, a moan, but in tandem with the choreography of Traci Bartlow, the music is for war, just as her movements are forward motion, the principle activity in the Sisyphusian myth-ritual, as interpreted by Baraka. Traci employs modern, African, jazz and hip hop movements to tell the myth. She is outstanding as choreographer, dancer and assistant director. Rashidi Byrd was excellent with his hip hop movements.

And there is love, for there shall be no revolution without love. Baraka reminds us of love and unity throughout, and the dancers exemplify by embracing each other and the audience or tribe, weaving in and out of the audience to make it feel, touch, taste and hear the Motion of History, a Baraka title.

The video symbols are apt since we are in the video Age, but because the images are a powerful montage of history and current reality, we are forced to learn from them, for they enter our consciousness along with the other dramatic elements to break the rock of ignorance. No one can sit in the audience and participate in this drama without a raising of consciousness, without desiring a further course in black studies, the history of imperialism and its counterpoint, revolution.

We applaud the acting of President L. Davis as Sisyphus. He is on the way to an acting career. His voice alone should take him there. Do we not hear a James Earl Jones in the making? His nemesis, Skelekin, Amil Islam, is another powerful young actor we expect

to be transformed by his role as Block Man. We suspect all the actors will be transformed by this production, artistically and spiritually, even the young actors from the Youth Guerilla Theatre, who completed the intergenerational aspect of the myth-ritual drama.

We thank the producers, Eastside Arts, for making this production possible. It is a much needed continuation of the Black Arts Movement. And as we exit the theatre, exhausted but joyful at the conclusion, we must suggest a reading of How To Recover from the Addiction to White Supremacy, for we cannot leave the theatre to do nothing, rather the Opera’s intent is to get us involved in the dance of unity and radical consciousness. How to Recover from the Addiction to White Supremacy is the antidote to problems presented in Sisyphus Syndrome: detoxify, recover and discover your role in the cultural revolution. We encourage you to attend our Pan African Mental Health Peer Group to recover from the addiction to white supremacy. Call 510-355-6339, email Visit my blog:

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