Sunday (Dec. 9), Kanye West covered himself in disco silver face paint and a likewise shimmering robe, climbed onto a floating barge in Miami’s Biscayne Bay alongside more than 100 similarly-costumed choir members, and read the Christian scripture of Jesus’ birth to a couple thousand or so curious fans and hype beasts, culminating at a very-strange Art Basel 2019.
The nearly hour-long musical called Mary was the second such “opera” from the infamous rapper, producer, and fashion designer. West has had a very public religious re-awakening, abandoning plans for a ninth album titled Yanhdi to instead drop an 11-track gospel record called Jesus is King in October.
At Coachella 2019 and beyond, he’s traded traditional concerts for popular Sunday Service performances featuring his full choir and church band. Two weeks ago, West debuted a critically-divisive musical play in Los Angeles titled Nebuchadnezzar. It was directed by frequent West collaborator Vanessa Beecroft, as was Mary, and starred “Mo Bamba” rapper Sheck Wes in a retelling of the Bible’s Book of Daniel.
Where that Hollywood Bowl performance featured none of the artist’s previously-released material, Mary was composed of religious and holiday favorites, a lone FKA Twigs song, and famous Kanye hits. That familiarity mixed with the stunning visual of shining singers on the Bay at sunset saved the quickly-organized performance, which suffered from over-arching sound issues, tardiness and more than a few narrative hiccups from West himself.
Mary was the definition of a last-minute event. We can’t be sure when West conceived of the play, but it was publicly announced three nights before on Thursday evening (Dec. 6). Tiered tickets from $20 to $200 sold out before doors opened Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
Fans filed in to the Virginia Key venue beside the old Miami Marine Stadium, surprised not to find any food vendors or merch tables. We were handed a folded, computer-printed program featuring hand-sketches of the play’s 12 scenes. Water was available for purchase, while those with VIP beach seats could sit on unbranded blankets free of charge.
The crowd was a mix of fashionable art hipsters and casual music fans. Some kids and older faces were in attendance, though most looked to be 30-something millennials. There were die-hard fans, like Roketa Boykins who swore she’d “never miss anything Kanye does in Miami.” She brought her two curious friends Norris Milton and Gina Hall along for the ride. There were also those like Ludwig Koehne and Daniela Salazar who knew Kanye from his older hits and figured “why not?” Anything from Kanye was a must-see Art Basel event.
The “opera” was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. L.A.’s Nebuchadnezzar started more than two hours late, but Miami waited only an extra hour, marveling all the while at the steady stream of silver band and choir members filling the sand-covered barge. Some fans speculated about how Kanye might appear. Would he burst out of the water on a jet pack? Was that him on the boat in the bright pink shorts?
Actually, he made no big appearance at all. Mary simply began without any warning or introduction. The choir erupted in staccato “ah ahs” as a singular blue woman, Mary herself, stood over lying silver bodies. Then suddenly, “Over 300 prophesies describe the coming savior.” West’s voice came out booming, his body hidden behind a speaker. “Jesus Christ fulfilled them all.”
Whatever anyone had expected, it became quite clear Mary was to be a deeply-religious presentation. The centuries-old tale of a manger, angels and a virgin birth is usually told around this time, doubtless carried on in thousands of community theaters around the United States. Those other plays don’t have “tin man” Kanye, but like those low-budget performances, this rendition was rife with feedback noise. People chuckled as we heard instructions to “turn the choir down in my microphone” during the first choral pause. West narrated the full story, sounding a little like a nervous child reading aloud in class, sometimes stumbling on his words or transitions.
Things found a flow by scene four. Joseph’s distrust of suddenly pregnant Mary was soundtracked by the well-known grooves of “Devil In A New Dress” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” each transcribed in glorious choral arrangement. The drums and bass bumped through the speakers as audience heads bopped in happy recognition. When the scene ended, the audience erupted into its first applause.
West smartly, albeit literally, paired his original song titles to the plot. When Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem at the order of Caesar Augustus, we get a ghostly “Love Lockdown” and a jaunty stand-out rendition of FKA Twig’s “Holy Terrain.” When the angel Gabriel tells the shepherds and Wise Men of the coming of the Lord, we got Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and church standard “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” There was “Drummer Boy” and “O Holy Night,” but when Caesar ordered the killing of all new-born sons, we got West’s “I Thought About Killing You” into “Power.”
The performance finished with “Hallelujah” and “Mary Mary” as birds flew over the glistening Bay. West finally emerged from his speaker, alongside the lead actors and Beecroft, to take a happy bow. The audience cheered in approval, and when West got back into his boat, he turned to wave at the audience waved back wildly, absolutely gleeful with direct recognition.
Traditional Kanye concert Mary most certainly was not, but as everyone filed away to the continued music of the Sunday Service band, we all left with a little bit more Christmas cheer, hearts swelling with some of that old goodwill toward men.
In the end, Mary was a beautiful work in progress. It had its hiccups, as any fly-by-night performance is destined to, but it also showcased a wonderful glimpse of what could be. Screens on either side of the audience exemplified Beecroft’s powerful direction, lending strong, cinematic angles to the shining actors on stage. During the “Power” climax, we heard how, with a bit more rehearsal, Kanye’s passionate delivery could match with the forceful booms of the massive choir. If Kanye can lock into a rhythm and continue adapting his own works and those of others into religious presentations, he might have something really special on his hands.