Invisible UpSouth is an original stage work currently playing at the Wilbury Group’s space at the Southside Cultural Center in Providence. The work is the brain-child of Christopher Johnson and Vatic Kuumba, inspired by the book from 50 years ago, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, 1952, addressing issues facing African-Americans of the time. Through a combination of theatrical formats, Invisible UpSouth examines what life is like in a “post-racial” society. How far have we come? What everyday fears and prejudices remain? How can we get our message across in another way? The piece came to fruition through the Wilbury’s New Works program, produced by Kate Kataja. It packs a powerful punch, and the Q and A afterward with the audience is lively.
Clips of film, television and newscasts flood the large projection screen as the audience enters. Projected images range from 1915’s The Birth of a Nation with its hooded KKK members, to Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl half-time show. It’s a diverse collection of depictions of African-Americans and their persecutors, peers and leaders (eg, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr.). Many of the clips are cringe-worthy, and rightfully so (black-face makeup use with dim-wit personas). As a very young child in the 1950s I remember watching our church put on a minstrel show with white men in blackface. And this was in “better-educated” New England. Sometimes, it isn’t until these realities are reflected back to us do we actually know what we have done.
Guilt trips are not the goal of Christopher Johnson and Vatic Kuumba, who both give outstanding performances as Old Man and Young Man respectively. They seek solutions. Invisible UpSouth grew out of conversations and the desire to inform, educate and encourage change. The material is gritty, real, emotional, begs questions and demonstrates how powerful language is – depending on who is speaking and in what context it is used. Complicated issues are made easier to understand through characters, poetry, vignettes and scenes from a story about Young Man’s search for work as a black man, and the constant worry about his friends being shot.
The work is heart-wrenching, funny at times, thought-provoking and straight from the hip about the African-American experience in current times. The issue of police shootings is central. But there is much, much more. We’re reminded that anyone’s perspective on a subject depends on where they are standing.
Christopher Johnson is a published and international spoken-word artist and poet (and occasional Motif contributor). Currently in residence at AS220 where he has honed his work, he has many awards to his credit. He recently toured the United States with The Freedom Project. Johnson says people don’t really understand “Black Lives Matter” when they say, “All Lives Matter” or they don’t see color. By not acknowledging our differences, it makes African-Americans invisible. We admit that most of society expects assimilation. Everyone should “learn the right language,” adopt a “mainstream hairdo,” etc. But, there has to be a middle-ground where we can celebrate our differences, yet be accepted by and accepting of others who do the same.
Vatic Kuumba relocated to Providence in 2012 and has been a fan and a favorite at Providence Poetry Slam. In 2015 he gave a TEDx Talk on Rap Slam and his vision of the future of hip-hop. Rap Slam is a hybrid of performance poetry and competitive rap. “I am driven by ideas,” says Kuumba. “My passion belongs to creation. Words are the most economical medium. One can create a universe with words and not spend a penny.”
Invisible UpSouth continues through March 6 at the Wilbury’s Southside Center location in Providence. For times, tickets and more information about this still developing work go to thewilburygroup.org.