The well-made play structure serves concerts as well, or “How dramaturgy factors into the YEEZUS tour.”
Yes. As much as it baffles me too, I couldn’t stop thinking about theatre during Kanye West’s TD Garden performance this last Sunday. Not only did the show (I can’t even refer to it as merely a concert) incorporate faceless dancers, multiple LED screens, an actor playing Jesus, and a two story white mountain, it did all of this in a nearly two and a half hour 5-act container.
This tour, meant to promote his humbly-titled new album, “Yeezus,” felt more like a performance art piece than any concert I’ve ever seen. For starters, the concert began with a processional ensemble dressed as church officials with masks that eliminated all facial features walking from behind the mountain and bowing before a thin spotlight. From behind the processional, Kanye West leaped on stage in a jewel studded mask (which he kept on for the first 3/4 of the concert) and began his set.
The 28-song setlist, although integral to the performance, felt on equal ground with the big-budget theatrics. He divided the show into five acts: fighting, rising, falling, searching, and finding. This journey seemed to mark the journey of the character Kanye has created (Yeezus) or maybe it’s the journey of Kanye, himself, from perceived prophet, to humble heavenly servant.
Now, I’d venture to say nothing about this show is humble; He parades around in a roman gladiator outfit singing lines such as “I am a god,” He compares the “rich man complex” to buy designer everything as another form of slavery, and personifies his struggles with alcoholism and over-stretched ego in a furry, black, snow monster which taunts him for 3 or 4 songs. That being said, I was constantly asking myself, what is all of this for? It’s entertaining as hell, sure. But what is it for?
It wasn’t until halfway through the set when he played his ballad “Runaway” in which he calls himself out on many of his shortcomings, that he addressed the audience for one of only two times in the performance. In this ten minute, auto-tuned, half sung direct address he called himself out on the pressure he feels to constantly deliver. Yelling “Do I have to scream ‘I’m creative!’ at the top my lungs?!” I got a strong feeling he’s referring to the two-dimensionality of this show’s theatrics. Are they merely here to please? Much of the “Yeezus” album features more muscular, cold, industrial music, robotic in a way, that feels disconnected from a human experience. Is this show, then, about how he feels he needs to deliver, because it’s what’s expected of him?
It wasn’t until the church processional reemerged, later on and Kanye met Jesus (played by an actor who walks through the two story mountain that has just been split) that I realized the point of this excessive staging. Yes, Kanye is making a religious statement about what he believes all of his work is for, but it’s the implication of hiring an actor to play Jesus. Another heightened theatric, meant to strip away all of the previously established theatrics and simplify our hero’s journey.
As narrative, the show is deeply flawed. The symbols and stagings are confusing and contradictory, but I struggle to think of a concert that’s stuck with me this much, that I actually had to digest. For as many problems as I have with the personality that is Kanye West (at least that’s perceived on talk shows, interviews, award shows, etc. ) I am a fan of his music and have been for a long time. And I have a lot of respect for a performer who doesn’t want to be tied to down to one strict way of performing. In interviews he’s stated he works with performance artist Vanessa Beecroft and Czech choreographer YEMI and they’ve had large influences on the YEEZUS tour. This all coincides with West’s think tank company DONDA (named after his mother) which calls itself a home to artists of any medium, where they can brainstorm ideas and collaborate.
Say what you will about the man, the personality, the music, and the reputation, but I take my hat off to Mr. West for touring with a show like this. And at the end of the day that’s exactly what this is; a show. The YEEZUS tour is a giant, challenging, industrial, boastful circus, and one that I’ll be thinking about for a long time after this.