Hancher celebrates the kickoff of its 40th season with 'choreopoem'


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Some people are able to identify a specific moment in their lives — the moment — when they felt themselves transition from a kid into an adult. For award-winning writer Marc Bamuthi Joseph, this instance came when he found out he was going to be a father, and that served as inspiration for the “choreopoem” Word Becomes Flesh.

Hancher will feature Bamuthi’s provocative show at 7:30 p.m. today and Friday in North Hall’s Space/Place to open its 40th anniversary season.

“I think it’s a great way to start interest in our performances because, as with everything we present, it is made of exceptional craft and artistry,” Hancher Programming Director Jacob Yarrow said. “In addition to being a very powerful, visceral show, it is entertaining and also has numerous themes and issues that are relevant to contemporary life.”

Word Becomes Flesh features five performers from the Living Word Project and an onstage DJ, who use interpretive music, dance, and “slam-style” poetry readings to tell the story of an expectant single father over the nine months of pregnancy. The show also addresses issues of ethnicity and prejudice, youth, patriarchy, “hip-hop culture,” and other themes.

“The performance is very much alive, especially on a college campus,” said performer Daveed Diggs, a theater graduate of Brown University. “The body speaks as much as the words. Hip-hop is relevant, because we’ve grown up with these influences on our art and thought, as a sort of birthright. We’ve all been through personal things, and it’s exciting to see [how the audience will] take it.”

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Performer Khalil Anthony, an Emmy-winning artist living in Brooklyn, said Word Becomes Flesh presents its controversial themes from a unique perspective.

“What disconnects me from my country is media’s portrayal of hip-hop and black art,” the performer said. “I feel like hip-hop is lens for someone else’s gaze. What makes this piece special and diverse is that it’s a story from five black men who all have their own backgrounds and views, instead of being the drones everyone says we should be.”

Performer Michael Wayne Turner III, a Texas native and touring poet, musician, and artist, said the story behind Word Becomes Flesh rang close to home. After learning he would become a father at the age of 18, he said, Bamuthi Joseph’s work helped him sort through the confusing, “carnal” experience.

“This piece saved my life,” he said. “It’s so honest and real. It showed me I’m a good enough somebody to be something. There are fear and love on both sides, and it’s like, What are you going to lean to? We are the sole architects of our lives. This show was an unfinished blueprint, and I built my life on that framework.”

Feeling that others on the University of Iowa campus could learn from this message as well, the Hancher staff organized a series of meetings for the performers and various UI classes during the week. They visited an African-American literature class, an advanced playwriting class, and an Anthropology and Contemporary World Problems lecture, among others, performing portions of Word Becomes Flesh and dissecting its themes with the groups.

“Everyone’s so passionate at this age—when you are able to spark a dialogue, it’s so rich and ripe,” said performer Dahlak Brathwaite, a multifaceted hip-hop artist from Sacramento, Calif. “I remember feeling in my last years of college that my youth was slipping away. I’ve heard the line ‘Old for youth, young for life’ — confronting that is a big theme in this play and for me.”

Turner said the discussions provoked by art are one of the biggest reasons he chose to go into theater.

“To engage people, and then break it down, is important,” he said. “It’s the best way to learn about something. The art itself isn’t enough. When we analyze honest, genuine expression, we can find the core of the magnified picture, and I love it; I love the college age.”

Hancher Executive Director Charles Swanson said having more interaction among the performers and the community is one of the ways the Hancher staff hopes to “enrich the education” of a diverse audience.

“It really goes beyond a performance,” he said. “We want to engage University of Iowa students and people in the community and have them have the experience of working with some of the world’s finest artists.”

Brathwaite said he and fellow cast members will not only offer information to but absorb information from the Iowa City community. He said they can learn a lot about local culture not only through public discussions but by measuring audiences’ responses to Word Becomes Flesh from the time the curtain goes up.

“We’re learning just as much as the audience, just by listening to their reactions to the show,” he said. “When we hear sniffles, laughter, shouts of joy — that’s a performance in itself.”

Although Hancher has attracted thousands of artists and audience members to its program during the last 40 years, it has met its fair share of challenges. After losing Hancher Auditorium — its location from the early 1970s till the June 2008 flood — the performing-arts center has had to move its programming to various other smaller facilities.

“We’re working very hard to pair artists with the venues that suit them that are available to us and create really special experiences at those places,” Yarrow said. “We’re really proud of how we’ve been able to continue to work with the great artists of the world and the great audiences in Iowa City and create magical experiences — still.”

As successful as the last 40 years have been, Swanson said, he has high expectations for the next 40 as well, starting with the design plans for the new Hancher Auditorium. He hopes construction on the new facility, which is in its third design phase, will begin around 2016, he said.

“When the first Hancher was built 40 years ago, nobody knew what Hancher was or what that word meant,” he said. “Now, we’re designing this building based on 40 years of history and experience. This building has the ability to take us far into the 21st century.”

But, Swanson said, Hancher’s original philosophy will remain unaltered.

“Hancher started off with this broad range of programming, and we really have not changed that approach,” he said. “There are some traditions we always want to hold.”

This includes exposing the Iowa City community to shows such as *Word Becomes Flesh* that go beyond verses and music to help illustrate life’s most influential moments.

“When you come across a piece of work that’s transformative, it acts as a catalyst to your life,” Anthony said. “Especially on a college campus, people want to find that something that changes and moves them.”

What: Hancher, in its 40th anniversary season
What: *Word Becomes Flesh*
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: North Hall’s Space/Place
Admission: $10-$35

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