The second I stepped into the small, intimate space of the Public Theater for the final night of The Roots performance inspired by their album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, I knew this was no ordinary concert. There was orchestral seating for a small string quartet, a minimal drum set, a jumble of nooses hanging over the stage, and balloon animals in nets ready to fall over the audience . I immediately flashed back to the many experimental theater performances I have attended in my years living in New York. Politicized randomness thrown on top of musical performance can go very wrong – but if anyone can bring it all together, it’s The Roots crew.
Questlove and legendary sampling artist Jeremy Ellis took the stage first, cloaked in darkness. A distorted sample of Nina Simone‘s “The Theme from the Middle of the Night” was mixed live by Jeremy on a Maschine while Questlove blended the overall sound, recreating the introduction the album live. As the mournful music rose, a wiry frame of dancer Storyboard P – dressed in an Ed Hardy jacket- entered and grabbed a giant balloon. He used it as an umbrella as the net of brightly colored balloons opened and fell onto the stage and the first row. Sounds of a thunderstorm accompanied the fall, created live by a didgeridoo player and the beat-boxing of Rahzel, who stood off the side in a Pelle Pelle jacket. As Storyboard danced somewhat frantically, the balloons began to pop. The colorful rainbow of plastic became reminiscent of gunshots. The symbolism of the bedazzled jacket, the Jim Crow era samples, and the violent soundscape combined to set a dark tone for the show.
Black Thought emerged from the shadows in a large hood, walking to the microphone and delivering a monologue that would feel at home at a Nuyorican Poetry Slam. He dove straight in – calling out slavery, the 70′s and the history of hip hop as one grim and poignant cycle of poverty and despair.
Between these monologues, Questlove, Jeremy and the string quartet delivered striking musical soundscapes, which blended into songs from their new album. Black Thought’s verses – although he didn’t spit them live – were given a deeper power in the context of the overall performance. “Understand” was a standout moment breeding the gap between entertaining hip hop. The lyrics proclaimed “People ask for God, ’til the day he comes, see God’s face they turn around and run” while organ chords plunked out the melody. Everyone was feeling the tent-revival vibe - The Root’s were our preachers, saving us from the toxic music we all thought we wanted.
One song that was truly touching was “The Coming.” The simple piano was a sharp dichotomy to the complexity of the previous songs. A pure female voice sang “They don’t remember… was it coming was it going? Were they running from the sun?” out into the dark theater. It was the redemption we were waiting for, the reclaimed innocence after the fall. Personally, I think this vocal would be amazing on an extended remix, drawing out the melody and giving the song more broad appeal.
The audience was head-nodding along to the powerful beats, and just as church-like atmosphere became overwhelming, the band’s lead guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas took the stage. He immediately began shredding to the beat, his fingers moving deftly up and down the guitar neck. This man owned the stage as a rockstar, waking us from the spell cast by Questlove. The upbeat and funky “Tomorrow” began to play, reminding us all that music was, in fact, fun. Audience members began to pick up the balloons and toss them around the theater. The show ended on this positive note, leaving us all exhilarated and emotionally exhausted.
It’s not often I go to the theater – and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But The Roots managed to teach a lesson in history, music theory, and the African-American experience seamlessly. It’s remarkable that after playing the Tonight Show into millions of American homes, the Roots can still be so compelling and relevant. Their success has allowed them freedom – something most artists aspire to. It’s a testament to The Roots’ genius that they use this privilage to showcase the enslavement of music today, letting their audience taste freedom for a precious 2 hours in a dark theater.