These words connect the dots," proclaim the three men who wrote and perform Griot. The dots they connect form nothing less than a swift survey of African-American cultural history, delivered artfully, energetically and briskly.
Commissioned by the Theatre Project after one of the performers, Al Letson, revealed his versatile talents there last season in his one-man show Essential Personnel, Griot takes this poet/actor's gifts to another level by showcasing his collaborative talents.
Under the direction of Barbara Williams, Letson is joined on stage by Larry Knight and David Girard Pugh. Near the start of the piece, Knight describes a "griot" as a storyteller who "carried the living history of an entire people."
Pugh later portrays an actual griot (in an excellent depiction of a weary old sage whose wisdom is as fresh as his bones are brittle). But for the most part, the three men enact vignettes from defining moments in African-American history, beginning in Africa, proceeding through the Middle Passage, on to slavery in America and the migration North. Along the way, they zero in on such artistic developments as the birth of the blues and jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, Motown and, finally, hip-hop.
In a style that relies more on suggestion than impersonation, Letson's portrayals include James Baldwin - raising the ire of mentor Richard Wright (Pugh) - and Motown founder Barry Gordy. Knight is especially moving as actor Paul Robeson, bitter, disillusioned and reclusive near the end of his life.
The performers also, however, play nameless archetypal figures, from an African father and son trying to elude capture and slavery to three modern-day swaggering dropouts, whose bravado may prove short-lived.
Along with original text, much of it in the form of poetry and choral speech, Griot - described by its creators as a "choreopoematic play" - features original music by Jeremiah Brown and quotations from such sources as Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
One difficulty of covering so much ground in such a short period of time (the piece runs only about 80 minutes) is that there's little opportunity to examine anything in depth. At the very least, however, Griot gives a strong sense of the heritage that gave birth to its three creators and their generation of African-American artists.
While in residence at the Theatre Project, Letson is creating a student theater piece commissioned by the Baltimore School for the Arts and scheduled to be performed in April. Also, all three cast members are working with students at several area high schools and colleges. An excellent vehicle for a wider school tour, Griot offers students not only a view of history, but also a look at the way history can be transformed into art.
Griot is subtitled "He Who Speaks the Sweet Word." The word he speaks isn't always sweet; it can also sting. But the message it conveys is one of strength, survival, belief in God, the role of the arts and the importance of sustaining the word and carrying it into the future. In this respect, Griot is its own best example.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, 10:30 a.m. Thursday; through Feb. 29