“I want you to close your eyes and remember your first puff puff pass,” Baba Israel raps near the beginning of “Cannabis: A Viper Vaudeville,” which is a fast-paced flashy rap concert and dance party clearly geared to fans of the psychoactive plant that has dozens of names and many millions of fans.
But the show, at La MaMa through July 31, is trying for something more substantive than just an entertainment, though it is certainly that. “Cannabis” attempts a cultural, legal and political history of marijuana. And, even more than that, during its short run it has effectively served as a clearinghouse for the explosion of activity and activism in New York after marijuana was legalized last year for recreational use, five years after it was legalized in the state for medicinal purposes. In addition to the show itself, the evening I attended included a fascinating panel discussion beforehand, “Understanding the Pharmacology and the Benefits of Conscious Consumption” — that included mention of a new state agency, the Office of Cannabis Management, and the website it runs Cannabis.ny.gov seeking public comment on a series of proposed regulations on home cultivation, packaging, testing — and two additional activist guest speakers afterwards.
“Cannabis” the show declares its activism upfront. “Tonight,” Israel raps, “is for anyone who carries a felony on their back for smoking, growing or distributing a flower, for those who are still till locked away; tonight is for those who have had to hide their use of cannabis because of fear of losing a job, their children, of being busted on the corner.”
But “Cannabis” also traces the journey of the plant from its first cultivation in Asia 10,000 years ago (“From before the written word/People have been hitting the herb”) to its arrival in the New World ( “Indian hemp arrives on ships/ Cannabis tinctures for white American lips”) to the last hundred years of ever-increasing popularity and accompanying crackdowns. The show argues for a connection, between marijuana and many social and political movements of the last century – not just the obvious ones, such as the 1960s counterculture, but the Mexican Revolution.
Israel has culled many fascinating facts from the book Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana — Medical Recreational and Scientific by Martin A. Lee. He delivers much of this information as rap lyrics. These as a whole are more clever than clear, in contrast to the clarity of similar extended narrative raps in shows I’ve attended by another rapper named Baba, Baba Brinkman (“A Rap Guide to Religion,” “A Rap Guide to Climate ChaosI.”) But there is ample backup. Video projections offer a hyperactive collage/psychedelic light show but also several memorable historical clips, such as Ronald Reagan saying marijuana the world’s most dangerous drug.
I saw what was billed as a “sneak preview” of “Cannabis: A Viper Vaudeville” at Little Island last August, less than half of the full two-hour show, and I was struck in particular by Israel’s band Soul Inscribed‘s thrilling mix of musical genres, from to jazz to hip hop to blues to pop (even a rendition of The Beatles “I get high with a little help from my friends.”), and, a highlight, singer-songwriter Grace Galu imitating Louis Armstrong’s singing style.
Galu (now aka the Sativa Diva), remains a highlight in the full show at La MaMa; her homage to the horn player and famous toker is now accompanied by an extensive profile of him by Israel. It’s in Chicago where Armstrong “finds a home with the vipers/ the marijuana lifers,” trying “his first blow of gage …
Satchmo fell in love with Mary Warner, Mary Jane, marijuana
Something like a slow dance reefer on the daily
No effect on his dexterity
His work ethic not in jeopardy
Racism on the road, cannabis a remedy
The musical mix is just as thrilling at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, although I preferred the acoustics outdoors last year to the loud rock concert vibe in the enclosed space. I am also disappointed that the full theater piece doesn’t fully reflect (as I had hoped it would) the complexity of what has become a corporate product in a growing multi-billion dollar industry, a substance that medical authorities (not just Reagan descendants) have expressed concern about because of the effect of marijuana use on the developing brain of teenagers.
To be fair, these subjects came up in the panel discussion that night, and the loudness abated after the show’s intermission (what Israel called the “smoke break.”) The show was quieter in Act II, more relaxed (The audience seemed that way too.) Even the costumes were toned down: less hippie-era top hats, lamé and sparkle. It all seemed more poignant.
We saw a video of an older woman dancing and smiling.
That’s my mother, Baba Israel tells us. She was a core member of the Living Theater legendary experimental troupe. Now she suffers from dementia. He started giving her a “morning tincture…[which turned] her tantrums into a Bob Marley shuffle…
From screaming and hitting
to feeling the rhythm
from shouts of suicide
to darling it’s beautiful outside
The screen fills with dozens of videos of her dancing. The show ends with the audience encouraged to dance beneath a giant silver sculpture of a marijuana leaf, suffused with green light.