It’s 20 minutes to showtime and Jamie Nelson is crouched on the stage of Fresno Soap Co.’s black box theater applying corn-syrup blood to a mutilated and de-shelled turtle — a prop that will get some gasps (and laughs) later in the show.
The turtle is fake, though you wonder for a second about the two jars of yellow liquid on a shelf on the back wall. One is labeled urine. There is a giant poster of Molly Ringwald (circa “The Breakfast Club”), an unmade bed and an old rocking chair. A coffee table is set center stage with a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. There’s a rotary telephone Nelson will later use to bludgeon himself. In the corner is a set of turn-tables.
“I’m more of the wind-up doll rap monster guy,” says Nelson, who performs darkly comedic hip-hop under the moniker Cockamie Jamie.
The BlackBox Project isn’t rightfully in his comfort zone. Nelson was the first headliner for the monthly concert series hosted by Fresno Soap Co. in its 50-seat theater. The set is designed as the apartment of Nelson’s possible serial killing alter ego, complete with horror movie memorabilia, assorted mannequin parts and that mutilated turtle.
The project is a local talent showcase, says Deshad Cato, who produces the events with Errol Fowlkes Jr. It’s MTV “Unplugged” meets VH1 “Storytellers” as art installation. There is one event each month in conjunction with ArtHop. The visual art hung in the lobby matches the aesthetics of the show in the theater.
But this isn’t just another ArtHop performance. This is a one-of-a-kind experience, crafted by the artist. There are no repeat performances.
Nelson was perfect for the project’s first installment, Cato says. His music is story told in rhyme. His live shows have always been high on theatrics.
“You put that dude on TV, or on a stage, and you’ve got a show,” says Cato, who has been a fan of Nelson’s since he first saw him in the comic rap duo Argyle Pimps.
Putting so much thought into a single show was a challenge for Nelson, something he wouldn’t have done without the encouragement and pushing from Cato.
Typically, his performances come off like a firecracker, a spark that builds to a final pop (quite literally, if you’ve seen him perform). Here, there are moments to dissect the firework, Nelson says.
The show had the usual on-stage antics Nelson is known for. The crowd booed him at the start of the show and later followed him through a series of Pilates stretches and a off-color chant.
He interspersed the show with music breaks to explain the genesis for some of his songs.
For instance,“Old School Metallica.” Aside from being about how Metallica fell off (sonically speaking) after the “Metallica” album (aka the Black album), is about coming to terms with the metal band’s music. For most of Nelson’s childhood he associated Metallica with his adopted cousins.
They were terrible racists, he says. They also happened to like dope music.
Nelson also performed several songs from his upcoming album, songs he’d never done live before. And he did a little acting.
“It the perfect set up to try something new,” Nelson says.
The BlackBox project is tentatively booked through November. Local R&B singer Nae Alma will headline the next event, Thursday, Aug. 6.
So far, the project seems to be attracting musicians, Cato says, but he doesn’t rule out working with painters or sculptures, or even writers. He envisions something akin to James Lipton’s “Inside the Actors Studio.” The only limit Cato sees to the project is the space itself.
“It’s a showcase and sandbox for talent,” he says. “We don’t want it to be about the place or the building. We want it to be about the artist.”