I was supposed to start the new year focused on creating more than consuming, that is, working on bringing more of my ideas to life instead of polishing someone else’s. And yet when I heard last week that the esteemed rapper/actor/activist Common was holding down a stage performance in NYC the second weekend in 2020, I didn’t hesitate to betray myself. Luckily, it was a betrayal that served me well.
I’m not sure what was the impetus behind Bluebird Memories: A Journey through Lyrics & Life, but Common’s one-man show at the Minetta Lane Theatre in the heart of Greenwich Village felt like the melding of a perfect message with the perfect audience at the perfect time. And dare I presume, it was the perfect conduit for this creative wordsmith to share his story, his way.
If you’re not a fan of so-called "conscious hip-hop," you may know Common more for his acting in films like American Gangster, John Wick: Chapter 2,Just Wright, The Hate You Give or Ocean’s Eight. If you don’t know his hip-hop music at all, you may recall his Academy Award-winning song, “Glory,” from the movie Selma, gave him and co-creator John Legend their own viral moment at the Oscars a few years ago. But on Saturday night on that tiny street called Minetta Lane, the only people in the house were fans of Common, the master lyricist and hip-hop -- is it too soon to call him an icon? -- icon.
And Common knew that too. He knew that in this cherished, black box venue where so much talent has graced the stage that it feels an honor to even sit under its roof, devoted fans came to hear him rhyme. They came to bob they heads, sway from side-to-side, and mouth the words to his classic tunes. More of a performance piece than a play, Bluebird Memories offers more than a cleverly connected thread of Common's favorite beats and bars however.
Always the storyteller, whether in books, film or song, Mr. Lynn, presented this 3-day invitation into his psyche as an oral letter to his departed father, Lonnie Lynn. Fans of Common’s music are aware of his father’s powerful presence in his son’s life and the effect he had on his work. (We even got a chance to hear him contribute to an album or two.) Bluebird Memories is the lyrical bon vivant’s much needed detailing of how he came to be the man he is today, but also serves as a love letter, a forgiveness letter, and goodbye letter to his dad.
Taking the audience from his early days of asking his father to buy him the hit song “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, sparking his desire to pursue music, through his struggles of finding true success is more of a slow burn than an explosion of adoration and wealth, to confessing his hurt, anger and frustration over losing his father before he felt he knew how to be the man he wanted to be, Common lays the record bare. Unapologetically raw, expressing regret, confusion and pain along with enlightenment, passion and acceptance, Bluebird Memories reminds us why Common is truly one-of-a-kind.
Fan or no, one could easily sit in the audience of this singular showcase and enjoy it on multiple levels. You could wait eagerly for each story to end, anticipating which one of your favorite songs would be shared next. Or you could listen intently to a proud 47-year-old rapper open his diary and read to you his ups and downs, knocks and triumphs, fears and dreams. Whether he’s sharing the first rap he ever wrote (well, as much as he could remember) or expressing his first moment of major heartbreak, Common knows you will take it as you please, and leave the rest.
With an audience grooving in their seats and ready to turn the theater into its own spontaneous house party, Common reeled us back in to remind us that this trip down memory lane isn’t all for show. Take the homages to Nas, Erykah Badu, and Brand Nubian, but also take the story of friends and family asking for help to pay their rent or buy them new rims for their car. Take the awkward, but carefree dancing to his own band’s effortless rhythms, but also take the disappointment of his first album sales.
His move to Brooklyn brought a spiritual and cultural awakening, but never shaded his Midwestern work ethic or his love for Chicago. For Common, life has been a journey of creativity, fame and inspiration, but it’s also been a journey of loss, rejection, and uncertainty.
To bring the 2-hour showcase to a close, the audience was treated to an extended version of “The Light,” which led to a joyful group singalong during the chorus. Following a standing ovation, Common took a much-deserved bow and encouraged applause for his band, which was equally as deserved. Then, with a gracious wave, he exited the stage, leaving us to reminisce on our own memories, deciding whether it was his performance of “Black America Again,” “Love is …,” “Go!” or “I Used to Love H.E.R.” that was our favorite.
Whether we’ll tell others about his seamless drift into an original cypher for the night’s event, his slow dance with an eager audience member on stage, or his smudging the space before and after his performance is up to each individual. But in the end, Bluebird Memories: A Journey Through Lyrics & Life gave us our own bespoke memories of Common and how his journey has touched ours.