Performance artist Dahlak Brathwaite ’08 returns to his alma mater in January with a multidimensional play that combines hip-hop and dramatic performance. Brathwaite will present Spiritrials at the Mondavi Center Jan. 21-23.
Spiritrials hits on timely issues, exploring the American criminal justice system from the perspective of the Black experience. Brathwaite, a Sacramento native, incorporates hip-hop elements and classic theater performance, as well as both personal and fictional experiences to create the one-man show Spiritrials.
He said he is looking forward to bringing the show to UC Davis. “The people I met at UC Davis are a large part of what I’m doing right now,” said Brathwaite, who majored in English and minored in dramatic art.
As a freshman at UC Davis, Brathwaite became involved in iLL-Literacy, a spoken word group founded by Adriel Luis ’05. “I had been writing since I was 11 years old and then I started doing theater. When I was 16, I got into spoken-word poetry,” explained Brathwaite. “I was looking for an outlet.”
That outlet launched Brathwaite’s performing career. With iLL-Literacy, he began touring at colleges and started meeting fellow writers and performers. “It was a great generation of writers. I had a lot of great mentors that wanted to help bring me up and mold me as an artist.”
While still a student at UC Davis, Brathwaite was featured on HBO’s Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry Jam, bringing some national attention.
Brathwaite’s work focuses on the relationship between race, the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. He said it’s informed by his own life experience. Shortly after graduating from UC Davis, Brathwaite was pulled over by a police officer. He was found with hallucinogenic mushrooms, charged with a felony and ordered to attend a drug rehabilitation program in order to avoid jail time.
“I had already been writing about the police and the black experience in America. That experience furthered that story and it furthered my desire to explore it more,” Brathwaite said.
Shortly after, he moved to New York City, and with the mentorship of Broadway veteran Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Brathwaite gained experience in theater and playwriting. With iLL-Literacy, he had toured over 200 colleges and universities, and once in New York, continued to perform along the East Coast.
Brathwaite explained that communicating his message can be challenging in a predominantly white space. “Black people don’t always think their stories are going to be represented onstage. Sometimes I end up performing to a white audience and the jokes don’t resonate the same way they would with a Black audience and its tough. Until I talk to some of the people afterward and they tell me how moved they were,” said Brathwaite. “The shows where I’m educating people are some of my favorites. It’s necessary work.”
Due to the pandemic, Brathwaite’s tour has been put on hold. Now, he is working on a new project, from the comfort of his own home. He said the Mondavi Center has commissioned him to reimagine his children’s show, Adapting History, as a virtual experience. Adapting History is an oral telling of American history through music.