I climbed the bus and chose a seat near a window. I didn’t want to miss a thing. One of the performers instructed us to put the headphones on. A tall woman in a dress, sat next to me. We gave each other a slight smile and settled into our seats, not really sure what we had gotten ourselves into.
The bus driver turned the engine on and music began to play through our ears, then the narrator began. “Years ago, bus line 122B disappeared. But, today, it’s back and you get to ride it’s old path through Baltimore city.”
I was attending the play Promenade written and performed by Single Carrot Theater in Baltimore City. My oldest son, Kaya had (somehow) found me a ticket to a sold out show, because he knows I can’t stand to miss a production where he’s performing. He’s been performing since he was four years old, so to say I’ve seen a lot of shows would be an understatement. And anyone who sees a lot of plays or productions, or goes to tons of gallery openings, will tell you, that after a while your eyes and ears are trained to become a critic, recognizing art that is unique and well performed and that which falls short. Kaya can tell you, some of the shows he’s been in, were, well, not really worth sitting through. But, I did, because I’m a mama and I love my boy. Kaya hadn't given me an ounce of detail about Promenade, so I wasn’t too sure what I was getting into.
Quickly I discovered the premise of the play was that the audience was riding in an MTA bus around Baltimore city and that the show had been pre-recorded and was playing through our headphones, and the stage was the city and characters in the play were popping up in different neighborhoods as we rode along.
In the headphones a character was introducing himself as the postman. And there was Kaya, in a US postal worker uniform, bag slung over his shoulder waving to imaginary neighbors on the street. He was smiling and enjoying his job, carrying letters to the locals. The bus slowed down as his narrative continued. When his story was done, the bus pulled off again and we saw another actor, a woman on the other side of the street. She was in a white lab coat, getting ready for work. The narrator continued, “As you ride bus 122B, we hope that you see the city with new eyes, that even the trash in Baltimore takes on new meaning.” The bus pulled up to a stop sign and paused for a minute. On the ground, right next to the stop sign was a large, black trash bag, tied and gently blowing in the wind. It was like a sculpture, set in that place for a purpose. I thought to myself, “Wow! Even the props are carefully placed through the city.”
The bus continued to wind it’s way through underprivileged neighborhoods as well as wealthy neighborhoods on the west side of Baltimore. Recently I heard a pastor refer to Baltimore as a waffle. Each little square holds it’s own syrup and doesn’t like to distribute it to the others. Baltimore is a city of neighborhood blocks, They tend to be insular, like a little microcosm of a culture, not venturing to rub shoulders with the one right next to it.
Music made in Baltimore over the years, continued to play throughout the show. Bands like The Holy Lights from the 1970’s set the tempo and tone for the ride.
The storyline began to weave each of the six characters together in different narratives throughout the city. We pulled up to one scene and the pre-recorded story kept playing but then there was another layer, I could almost hear the conversation happening outside the bus. I found out from Kaya later, that the bus had microphones outside the bus as well. There were layers and pieces and details in this show that were blowing my mind.
The stage and the city began to blur. I couldn’t tell which was staged and which was real. Performance art was a taking on life that was not it’s own. It was becoming a new thing. It was creating in real time.
It had great design.
This morning I was reading The Artisan Soul by Erwin McManus and he talked about how great design, designs with intention. When God set out to create the universe, the earth, the oceans and the sky. When He began to paint each sea creature and form every animal and plant, He had a final plan in mind. He knew, in the end He was going to form a creature in His own image and that all that proceeded that final piece, lead up to providing for and sustaining His ultimate creation. He created an environment where life continued to create and sustain, always evolving so that life could continue. When we look through the lens of the Designer, we realize how much thought and detail went into each piece and that one without the other would break the chain of life. The fiber of the design was all about relationship. One held the other together.
The bus pulled up into a parking lot in the Waverly neighborhood. It stopped and the music turned ominous. The narrative talked about the struggles in Baltimore, the real, violent and broken narrative. The audience members got a bit nervous. Some stood up looking out the windows for a peek at the next staged scene. All of a sudden out of the corner of our eyes, all the actors came running up to the bus with florescent vests on and spray bottles and squeegees in their hands. They began to wash the windows of the bus, encouraging us to clean our lenses on how we saw the city and how we viewed our neighbors.
The bus started up again and pulled off and at this point I was having a hard time processing the layers of inspiration and ideas that were quickly populating with each new scene. We were coming to the end of our ride and the narrator began to talk about our neighbors, the individuals that make up our city. We passed a tent that had been erected on the corner of a city block and there was a diverse group gathered under it grilling burgers and drinking lemonade. I found out later from Kaya, this was not staged and neither was the black trash bag. That the script the designer(s) had written, was so well formed, that life leapt off the narrative and was creating in real time all around me. I don’t think I’ll look at my city the same way ever again.
May God open our eyes to the narrative He set in place thousands of years ago. A script that was so well designed that is left space and place for life to be created in real time every day, in every conversation. One that was designed with sustaining life as it’s core purpose and it’s blueprint connecting each and every piece to be in symbiotic relationship. May we have new ears to hear the music that layers itself with every voice, bird chirping and rhythm of trees blowing in the wind. And may this bus line never disappear.