Set Piece: Artist Theaster Gates Tries Stage Design for Marc Bamuthi Joseph Project at BAM

Part of Mr. Gates’s stage set. (Photo: Bethanie Hines)

Designing a stage set can be a milestone moment in an artist’s career. Think of Picasso and the Ballets Russes, or William Kentridge’s recent star turn at the Met. Now Chicago artist Theaster Gates is joining their ranks. Mr. Gates, who’s known for transforming abandoned buildings into vital cultural spaces, is collaborating with spoken-word artist and director Marc Bamuthi Joseph for a production of Mr. Joseph’s experimental theater piece Red, black & GREEN: a blues that opens in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Oct. 31.

The piece, which premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco last year, explores the redemptive quality of impoverished places and how different cultures understand notions of sustainability. For research, Messrs. Joseph and Gates traveled to urban parks around the country as part of a roving environmental festival called Life Is Living. “There were young people killing each other,” said Mr. Gates. “There were all these bigger issues than, ‘How do we install solar panels on a house?’”

Mr. Gates’s sets are constructed from plywood, scrap metal and other salvaged materials that the team accumulated on their trip.

Because Red, black & GREEN is about the four seasons and four cycles of life (childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age), the sets are comprised of modular units that can be broken down and reconstituted to represent the four different cities in which the piece is set.

Unlike the sets and costumes of many other artist-dancer collaborations, like the Ballets Russes materials, which are owned by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, or those of the Merce Cunningham Company, which have been acquired by Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, Mr. Gates’s will not end up in museums, if he has his way. He was brought on, he said, to make a stage set, not a work of art.

Many of Mr. Gates’s recent works have ventured beyond the bounds of what many would consider visual art. For the Documenta 13 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, this year, he transformed an old house into a space for artists to live and work in, a project that was inspired by his preparation for Mr. Joseph’s piece.

The stage sets similarly involved collaboration, with cast members and tech people. As for his role as the design lead, Mr. Gates boiled it down to “nuanced listening.”

Set Piece: Artist Theaster Gates Tries Stage Design for Marc Bamuthi Joseph Project at BAM