I was fortunate to see another performance of “Endangered” at the 2022 Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey, where Yusef Komunyakaa was a featured poet and has been for much of its history.
Originally performed at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, “Endangered” is a new multimedia performance which combines Pulitzer Prize-winning Yusef Komunyakaa’s words with the art of Floyd D. Tunson to the music of Tomás Doncker & The True Groove All-Stars, with additional supporting visuals by William Murray. The combination of visual art, music and poetry proved to be an innovative and emotionally provoking performance that expressed the danger and the detriment which Black men experience within their daily lives in our society.
The festival performance was special in comparison to the original because along with Komunyakaa’s poetry, it included other poets and their work, such as Jane Wong, Sakinah Hofler and Peggy Robles Alverado. The poems read correlated with the performance’s themes of progression and justice, with Jan Beatty reading her poem, “Shooter,” which reflects on sexual misconduct in the wake of the #MeToo movement and Elizabeth Bradfield reading a poem about the Pulse nightclub mass shooting.
In the NJPAC Prudential Hall, between these brief readings, Tomás Doncker & The True Groove All-Stars crooned similarly socially conscious songs as psychedelic images interspersed with Tunson’s work and the political flashed across the screen. Performing songs like “Gunslinger” and “Had Enough,” Tomas Doncker clearly knew how to work a crowd, leading the audience into bouts of clapping, grooving and fist raising throughout, while being accompanied by the excellent five-piece band. The music served as the heartbeat of the performance, both rhythmically driving it along with providing the soulful lyrics and tone for the images to rest upon.
The visuals ranged widely, from vintage video footage from the Civil Rights movement to Tunson’s paintings which focus on the Black experience, with a series of striking black-and-white portraits of Black men. Also included were images of famous Black icons, including Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr., along with more contemporary figures such as Donald Glover and Jay-Z. Some of the footage was from the streets of Newark itself, along with a recording of the Philly MOVE bombings. These images from the past were juxtaposed with more modern captures as well, such as the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police officers, working to tell the same story in two different time periods.
The performance culminates as a testament to the visions of artists from three different respective mediums — art, literature and music — and leaves the audience impressed and meditative. With the three existing already as such closely related forms and creative pursuits, it made sense for them to occur in conjunction together. There was also a sense of urgency within the performance, but instead of coming off as anxiety-inducing or suffocating as such messaging sometimes does, it was uniting and hopeful. One of the lasting images was Tunson’s striking black-and-white figurative portraits of a young man facing the camera directly with a sense of vulnerability and hope in his eyes.