The Spinning Wheel

Baba Israel and Leo Kay
South Street Arts Centre

The Spinning Wheel, Baba Israel and Leo Kay
The Spinning Wheel, Baba Israel and Leo Kay

The audience of The Spinning Wheel are greeted warmly as they enter the theatre space, quite literally, with a cup of hot vegetable soup and a friendly, approachable Baba Israel.

He then takes us on a journey, his father’s journey, from a '50s New York apartment building, out into the world, through the streets and parks, the prisons of Brazil and back home again. But home has changed, as has America and his father. We experience this journey through poetry, music, recorded audio and video, projected animation and visuals and direct conversation.

Steve Ben Israel, who died in 2012, was an integral part of The Living Theatre, a New York based avant garde theatre company founded by Judith Molina and Julian Beck to revolutionise the way that theatre performed the spoken word. Over the years, the company has naturally shifted into a movement for social and political change, particularly during the revolutionary artistic decades of the 60s and 70s.

At the same time, in the clubs and streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx, hip hop was being born. It is the combination of these two that Steve’s son Baba has grown up within, and that this piece aims to bring together.

Through rhythmic, beat boxed, performance poetry, a gentle underscore of live music and a patchwork of visual projection, we are guided through the story of his father, a plea to lighten the world and look at one another on the subway, and a snapshot of the performer himself, his hopes and fears. It’s a story of jazz, of counterculture, of revolution and of the cycle of life.

The whole piece takes place in front of a backdrop of cardboard boxes, stacked like a tall Bronx apartment building, and providing the surface for the visuals that flicker and chase across the space.

The boxes, and their many representations, creep back into the piece from time to time. They are the windows of the building, they are the Aladdin’s cave of creativity that was his father’s den, they are the restrictive worlds we place ourselves in, the office cubicle, the hot packed train, the rat race. Finally, they are the place within which his father’s things, books, badges, life, are packed away, to be treasured but kept to one side.

This is a piece about himself, his father and the world around him then and us now and, at times, the multiple threads of story leave us wondering what his message is, what is it that he really wants to say?

One story is the moving and endearing portrait of his inspirational and unusual father and the man that Steve shaped his son into. The other is one of counterculture and social change, of the power of the spoken word to shake the habitual. Both stories are important and they inherently interweave, but at times the transition from one to the other feels like an add-on, one scene too many beyond the natural end of the piece.

It's a minor criticism in a performance that is warm and engaging, well delivered and charmingly humorous. The devices used, lighting, music and projection in particular, are well layered. When the performer physically interacts with the visual projection, it is particularly powerful.

A scene in which he uses gesture and tracing, flashing lights to symbolise the terrifying imprisonment of his father and fellow performers in Brazil, alongside recorded audio, clearly delivers a significant mood change. The live music and beat boxing is skilful and breaks the narrative well, to lighten up, as Baba’s father would say, the whole shape of the piece.

It is beat poetry; it recreates the feel of a '90s jazz club on open mic, spoken word night. The only thing missing is the cigarette smoke. It is a culture and a community that Baba Israel clearly holds dear.

At the end of the piece, it is obvious that his father and New York city itself are inextricably intertwined in his experience. It is both his father he is saying good bye to with this piece, and the community and culture that he knew as a child. New York has changed, he has changed, it is inevitable, because the wheel keeps on spinning.

The need for artists and performers to use their voices to strive to make the world a better place, however, will never change, and we are left with this call ringing in our ears. It is a legacy that the performer’s father has left him, and it is one that he intends to pass on to us, his audience. I imagine it is something his father would be proud of.

The performance will go to The Albany and Midlands Arts Centre, before a full tour in 2015.

Reviewer: Liz Allum

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