‘Is the Real Barack Obama in the Building?’ President Remixed at Under St. Marks

Self-styled as a “multimedia one-man feat,” Darian Dauchan’s “Obamatry” opens up a dialogue between America and its president through speech, video, and music. Oftentimes it is difficult to gauge who exactly is speaking through Mr. Dauchan; the spoken word artist channels Obama as skillfully as he does the diverse people of America, exploring the hope, disappointment, trust, and fear which we’ve felt sometimes simultaneously these past four years.

Grounded in spoken word, the piece contains plenty of impressive rhapsodizing embellished with alliteration and peppered with humor. These are the moments when Mr. Dauchan reaches, along with the audience, a near ecstasy, not explaining but illustrating what it feels like to be black in America, to be let down by one’s leaders, or simply to be American. Fans of Mr Dauchan will see previous material (such as the poem in the video below) worked into this polyphonic framework.

The language is flowery, at times even beautiful, but the timing and wit of the piece guard against pretentiousness. Always careful not to proselytize, Mr. Dauchan insists upon Obama’s humanity (with all of its flaws and contradictions) rather than portraying him as an icon: The president plays basketball, flubs lines too, and gets gray hair, we are reminded, often through sly asides. When Mr. Dauchan does preach, it is to evoke the fervor around the 2008 election, nostalgically as well as critically.

How he does this, ironically, is by making Obama a character in the piece. Though sometimes he speaks directly as the president, more often he interacts with the video projection behind him, which assembles snippets of Obama’s speeches as well as commentary from the media. In one breathtaking scene, Mr. Dauchan and his on-screen double bark rapid-fire lines asking for Obama’s birth certificate (and learner’s permit, and high school diploma, and a tissue sample from his cheek).

DSC_0475 Darian Dauchan

He also runs his voice through a set of loop pedals, to create acapella beats on the fly à la Reggie Watts, or simply to repeat words until they lose their meaning. There is an episode in which soundbites concerning Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the black Harvard professor arrested outside his own home, are mixed with Mr. Dauchan deadpanning “Black . . . . White . . . . Black . . . . White . . . .” His methods for exploring and subverting race relations in America are as incisive as their are entertaining.

And this is why it is so hard to encapsulate what the piece is about: it continuously straddles the line between homage and critique, exhortation and celebration, propaganda and truth. Yet one is left with the feeling that something has been made clearer; that this was the convoluted inner dialogue which we often postpone until we forget about it. Mr. Dauchan works with the paradoxes of our political life, not whisking them away, but reminding us, with a wry smile, that they won’t go away.

“Darian Dauchan’’s Obamatry: A Spoken Word Remix on the 44th President of the United States of America,” Oct. 16, 23, 30 and Nov. 6 at Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, near Second Avenue; 212-777-6088