Puppets or Poets? - by Tiara Buchanan
"Def Poetry Slam"by Russell Simmons Directed by Stan Lathan Longacre Theatre 220 W. 48th St New York, NY 10019 Nov. 14, 2002 - Jan. 5th, 2003
review by Tiara Buchanan
Puppets or Poets?
Redemption through the mainstream for the slam poetry scene?
That seems to be the affirmation Russell Simmons is going for with his production of Def Poetry Slam on Broadway. Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen. The stark set design and simplified rhyme schemes along with straightforward messages of most of the performances gave the show a propagandistic feel, but the capitalist have been doing it for years, so why not allow a venue for an alternative American ethos?
Def Poetry Slam on Broadway exposes the circuit of slam poetry to a larger audience, introducing nine young, inventive, seasoned poets and performers arising alternately from the Y and Information Age generations. Redefining narrow concepts of individualism, the Def Slam poets each bring their own strengths to the show, ranging from Beau Sia's militant, volatile delivery to Mayda Del Valle's thunderous refrains. What results is a blend of poetic and theatrical talents that leaves one questioning just what constitutes poetry in the 21st century.
It's an old question, but it seems these artists have successfully embraced the oral tradition while adding the melodramatic flair that usually characterizes Broadway theatre. Does this good poetry make? With the distractions of each poet's theatrical style, many subtleties of the actual written works may either be overlooked or simply absent. Exhibit A: Sermons versus stories. In "Tito Puente", Lemon and Mayda describe "hands as fast as hummingbirds", yet in the offensive "Lone Soldier", Black Ice concludes that "the child grows up off schedule" because of a "split" home, embracing tired clinical pigeonholing and narrow, traditional definitions of family life. Not to mention the metaphor was simply predictable and dull.
Contrasted to the weaving ode rooted in collective memory in "Tito Puente","Lone Soldier' is much more defensive, much more accusatory. Interestingly, Black Ice seems popular with the crowd. The guy who sold me my tickets commented on how deep the brother is and the applause granted the first slam poet signed onto Simmons' Def Jam label rings of an, "Finally, a brotha speakin' the truth and doin' right by the youth" absolute adoration so commonly applied to that rare Black man who's driven towards the slightest pretense of activism. Not impressed.
Overall, Black Ice's spiritual affirmations, often delivered in a conventional hip hop rhythm, attempts to deconstruct stereotypes of the African American man and are accompanied by an exaggerated humility that's barely convincing and limited body language that reiterates his perspective, that is to say, a limited one. Like a self-righteous Jehovah's Witness, Black Ice thinly covers his missionary plot and you leave with the distinct and sour impression that you've just been preached to. Exhibit B: Signature poems. Many performers opted to include their token poems in the show -- Sia's "The Asians are Coming", Mayda's "In the Cocina", Stacyann Chinn's "Litany of Desire", and Georgia Me's "Sista to Sista" are all familiar to anyone with even a second-hand awareness of the slam poetry scene.
In other words, been there done that. No doubt the poets themselves who've been doing these pieces for years are bored with the repetition. Performances like Beau Sia's "Totally XXXtreme" revved the audience up only to be quickly deflated by Suheir's delivery of "Exotic", a piece replete with overdone themes of identity politics -- her monotone approach packaged as somber sincerity fails to convince, and the poetics of her writing stagnates in your ears. A more innovative performer could raise her work to new creative heights, but as Suheir's technique stands, that's about all it does -- stand. Most of the flowery imagery of the show comes from Suheir's performances and she seems to rely on the strength of her poetry alone to carry her -- a thorny result of the repetitive nature of a Broadway show, I think.
Though this was only the third night, it was clear many of the poets weren't used to the insistent uniformity of the stage. There is room for improvisation, of course, and it seemed Suheir finally came to life in the second act with the execution of "Mike Check". The poem cleverly plays on the bag-check boy's name in an airport,"Mike", and the familiar mic check done by musicians or more to the point, rap artists. A critique on racial profiling as a result of the Sept. 11th attacks, Mike Check asks,"Mike, who's going to check you?" The tone of the poem is personal, angry, energetic and it would be snobby literary criticism to deny the power of this work. Where "Exotic" fails to inspire a new perspective on racial discrimination, the energy Suheir bunches behind "Mike Check" pops, gets your attention and your empathy, much like the image of searched and exposed luggage in the poem.
Exhibit C: The Black women: one unabashedly straight, the other defiantly gay. Georgia's revealing title,"Niggods", speaks volumes of her attitude towards Black men, or at least one of her attitudes. In "Sista to Sista" she stands out as the stereotypical hell-raising sapphire/archetypical strong Black woman. This contradictory, self-righteous, denunciation of "lesser" Black women echoes Black Ice's self-righteous approach to poetry, albeit with a slightly more dramatic flare. At the close of "Hit like a Man", she cocks her hand into the shape of a gun to suggest she's shot her abuser. The most puzzling thing about "Sista to Sista" is the last line,"I understand sista, I been there" tagged on at the end as if she's trying to avoid the backlash she knows is coming.
Many of her performances unfold like testimonials -- there seemed little poetic technique involved and her strengths lied ultimately in the projection of her voice, her accent, and recognizable jargon. Stacyann Chinn's "Passing" was one of the few certifiable poems in the show. Well-known for the revolutionary tones of her poetry, Stacyann Chinn uses thick imagery and loose narrative to construct lyrical mosaics. In "Passing" she deconstructs homosexuals' ability to pass as straight and mainstream. Stacyann seems to insist that it's no longer enough to simply question what it means to be a Black woman; to take it further, we must begin to ask it means to be a sexual Black woman.
This in itself is a revolutionary act, and with a strained neck Stacyann pushes the indispensable fight for full self-expression. Exhibit D: Running fast, standing still, or teaching the two-step."Hip-Hop, The Music Piece" by the Company had a definite after-school special feel that explicitly aims to teach the audience about the origins of rap in a simplified, accessible way. Complete with exaggerated hip hop poses, references to pioneers in rap like Dougie Fresh and Run-DMC, the piece reassures audience members at the close of the first act that this is safe for the kids. It seriously left my jaw hanging and then rattling with amusement. The second act flows considerably more than the first and deals with, what else, relationships. The poets cover the gamut -- from the love-love poem, to the anti-love poem, to the lust-love poem, to a satiric self-love poem. There's even a feel-good ex-lover poem that uses an interactive "but" in Steve Coleman's "But" poem. Yeah, there's an ass reference in there. Suheir's revolution-love poem,"We Spent the 4th of July in Bed", swings into the next ten poems with revolution and social responsibility themes.
Everything's been leading up to this -- the show's over determined attention to identity politics ushers in the ultimate theme of the show revealed in "I Write America". All this narcissism ain't for nothing and with a cast that actually seems to embrace the diversity ethos that's been exploited by the Gap Inc. and United Colors of Benetton Co. for years, it's reassuring to know these poets and performers can ignore that smack dab in the middle of Times Square. The intensity that the show hums with is what in the end makes you sidestep any slipups in the way of "craft" with a capital "C". This fresh fusion of poetry with theater seems to have coiled and looped poetry with alternating monologues that in the end presents to the audience a cluster of personas who all have one shared characteristic -- a passion for the spoken word.
The dynamic body language and natural embodiment of the works each performer uses ultimately puts notions of "pure poetry" in check. You'd be sorely confused and completely lost looking for "serious poets" reading from podiums, sipping on glasses of water in the Longacre Theatre. It's exactly this stuffy academic approach to poetry that slam breakdowns and revamps for a public who claimed to hate poetry, and in the end these reviews mean little to the slam community. As long as the seats are full, or even half-full, the poets are doing their job.
The drama of the stage more than likely accounts for the success of Def Poetry Slam, yet limiting the "entertainment factor" to DJ Tendaji and subtle lighting that you barely notice validates these performances as art. And not moldy museum art or even pre-packaged Broadway imitations of art, either. Original, new, innovative, inventive, honest, ingenious, even --whatever you want to call it -- Def Poetry Slam on Broadway not only reintroduces poetry to a new generation, but expands what we've come to define as hip-hop culture. As hard of a time as I gave Black Ice and Georgia Me, their easily recognizable syntactical arrangements no doubt makes the audience more willing to embrace slam poetry as apart of the urban backdrop that birthed hip-hop. Apparently the cream of the crop when it comes to production, having his hands in, among other shows, Amen, Martin, Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey, and three seasons of Roc, Stan Lathan overlooked one important element of slam --the competition.
One of the most compelling elements of slam poetry is the idea that these poets are vying for audience approval, but if Broadway isn't enough approval, then what is? Maybe that's not the right question. Maybe it's the question of popularizing a new art form for a broader,"Broadway audience". And with the candid