By Marc Bamuthi Joseph


The only thing more powerful than private funds is public will. When YBCA describes its mission as generating culture that moves people, the bet that we are making is that we can activate how art influences the public imagination, and that we can design a process whereby highly dynamic inquiry spawns culture. The Transform Festival is artistically a concentrated slate of global performance works presented in the heart of San Francisco, but civically, Transform is a curated opportunity for our community to refine, reframe, and respond to the erosion of our country’s moral infrastructure.

A pre-dawn tweeter most likely can’t sleep, and a man who can’t sleep, can’t dream.

3 dancers draped over a large metal circular prop

You’ll forgive me if I glance over history to presidents past…I am newly awakened to the significance of two presidential acts. The first is a speech, offered by JFK in May of 1961 in which he announced the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy reminds us that the future is made of stumbles, hubris, and innovators who are humble enough to pursue it. He asks us to apply un-invented systems of science WHILE inside the swirl of social tumult. He asks us to dream, together, in public.

In 1965, Kennedy’s caustic and controversial successor, Lyndon B. Johnson instituted the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA was ratified into lawful existence via Congressional Act, a portion of which reads:

“The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States…

Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located, masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”

YBCA is an arts center in service of free thinkers and earnest leaders. About 20 months ago, an immigrant architect named Teddy Cruz addressed us at the YBCA100 Summit. At the time of his talk, we were 5 days away from the 2016 Presidential election, and I remember that the air outside tasted like stale hope. Inside our Forum though, I found myself electrified and sharply determined in response to one of Teddy’s questions to us that day. He centered us in the thought that public space is where beliefs are physicalized and constructed. He observed with us that we are stuck in a civic pattern where top-down resources rarely interfaced with bottom-up agency. And then he pleadingly asked us …“Where is our public imagination?”

two dancers caressing each other's faces in a dim room

I can’t rightly say if any of the artists in this Spring’s Transform Festival are unequivocally answering that question with their art, but I CAN say that art almost ALWAYS answers that question best. Even as Kennedy invoked a collaborative path to the impossible, he presided over an era of nuclear brinksmanship. Even as Johnson endowed the arts with federal resources, he amplified the country’s military scale in Viet Nam. Artists are the leaders among us, generally more driven by mission than market, whose job is to codify inspired thought for public consumption. Their ideas intersect with our political world, but they design experiences that ask us to imagine ourselves conjoined in the politics and physics of a creative moment. We imagine ourselves at the synaptic second of inspiration, or inside the bubble of digital love, or at the specific frequency of a Black woman rocking out on her guitar, or as collectively vulnerable, but still a collective.

The Transform Festival doesn’t uniquely honor or highlight any particular demographic or genre of performance. Curatorially we are as provoked by dance as by theater or music. The dominant frames for our festival choices are a rabid curiosity and a complicated sense of beauty. We don’t seek to program ‘for’ a demographic, but in solidarity with a psychographic that shares our sense of urgency, inquiry, and aspiration of social equity. As such, you’ll find DJ’s making symphonies to soundtrack climate change in the Arctic, and playwrights deconstructing liquor store culture in the Tenderloin. We’ll feature a dance company like Capacitor that’s celebrating 20 years of making work in the Bay Area, and Okwui Okpokwasili, who has visited us with Ralph Lemon and Nora Chipaumire, but has never come to YBCA as the artistic director of her own project.

Transform reflects an ethic of activating artists in our midst in a different way. We lean on questions to organize intentional communities rather than objects to magnetically lure audiences. We center relationships built on shared inquiry to re-imagine how an arts center can function as an activist citizen in its own community.

portrait of Marc Bamuthi Joseph

The Transform Festival was not dreamt into the air by a sitting president, but by a soaring question… “Where is our public imagination?” How might we envision Kennedy’s moonshot speech if his aim was not space, but education, or public health, or equity. If Kennedy’s “moon” was actually immigration, what would be the role of art in getting us there?

It is indeed #sad that our elected officials aren’t asking us these questions. What kind of person proposes military parades and the abolition of the federal art economy in the same week? How does the public respond to a kind of weaponized neurosis in executive form? At this festival, through the lens of provocative artists, let’s imagine that the beautiful city is not a bubble. As we take our seats, we remember that views don’t make a revolution, bodies do. As the lights dim to signal a creatively pitched reality, we might find our minds racing in the dark like a night under the shadow of a new moon.

This article appeared in the May 2018 edition of In Dance.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph is the 2011 Alpert Award winner in Theater and an inaugural recipient of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. This summer, his evening length work red black and GREEN:a blues was nominated for a 2013 Bessie Award for “Outstanding Production (of a work stretching the boundaries of a traditional form).” Bamuthi’s next piece in this artistic vein is called /peh-LO-tah/, and is a Balinese style shadow play that examines global economies and sexual identities through the lens of soccer’s World Cup. Mr. Joseph is currently completing new works for the Philadelphia Opera and South Coast Repertory Theater while serving as Director of Performing Arts at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.