Poet Michael Molina clearly loves to observe all the varied and multifaceted aspects of humanity, and there’s no better place for him to do that than the colorful and clamorous public transit system of his native New Orleans. Molina turns his spoken word poetry on the subject into a stage show with the production Mass Transit Muse, running at 7 Stages through May 18.
Muse utilizes a cast of 10 singers, actors, musicians and dancers who give flesh to the city’s lively characters as Molina narrates some of his experiences riding the RTA (Regional Transit Authority) buses in New Orleans, or as he calls it “St. Rita, patron saint of lost causes.”
Riding St. Rita is like riding a boat through the city’s heat, Molina tells us, with the great city and all its history passing by the window. But it’s not the evocative scenery that interests Molina most, it’s his fellow passengers: the lotharios, the rambunctious teenagers, the street preachers, the drag queens, the everyday philosophers, all of them part of the noisy symphony of fierce individualists and eccentrics that make up New Orleans.
Molina doesn’t just stick to anecdotal observations about quirky New Orleans character types: the bus is the locus of conflict, as well, and these characters bring the weight of history, race, strife and urban violence on board with them, as well, all of which are taken in by Molina’s sharp eye. As with a lot of spoken word poetry, community and race and history are recurring themes, and the format allows for a lot of direct first-person commentary on the subjects.
The show mostly belongs to Molina, who has an expansive and encompassing vision and a sharply conscious and present performance style. The diverse cast who become the individual characters act as a Greek chorus, fellow passengers, back-up vocalists and the people of the city of New Orleans. Especially well done is the use of hanging fabric, which the actors stretch across the stage to divide scenes, or even climb Cirque-style, giving what could be a single-imaged performance lots of different stage pictures. The fabrics are also used to form the sails of a boat, a seeming homage all in one to traveling rhapsodists, the African diaspora, and the quest for home in the many diaspora cities of the nation.
In the end, the show is a little short on drama in the strictest sense: this is a series of observations and brief interactions, rather than a single unified narrative that builds to a central climax. Still, wherever the bus takes us, it’s great to know we have a fantastic storyteller like Molina bringing us along for the ride.