Friday, December 12, 2003

Just My Opinion:

Def Poetry Jam

Right at the beginning of Def Poetry Jam I knew that something was wrong.  The DJ walked onstage and immediately tried to fire up the crowd with a very sensible decibel level and carefully chosen, non offensive mixes of old school and new school hip-hop peppered with the obligatory record scratches.   The crowd needed quite a bit of warming up, and though some people "got into the groove," others were remaining very composed.

The show had been lauded in its New York run as the second coming of theatre.  "Exciting,"  "electric,"  and, "energetic."   Its hip  and young cast were praised as wordsmiths and the critics couldn't say enough about how dextrous they were with the language.  And while the performers are congenial and sometimes commanding presences, aside from a few brief glimpses of true creativity, I am sorry to say that the poetry is pretty standard, cliched, and very one-sided.    I have heard better at local poetry slams.  But the poets there are not the attractive, MTV Real World types that Def Poetry Jam can exploit for Broadway ticket prices. This is a fact that is unconsciously underscored when one attractive poet, Suheir Hammad, recites, "I am not your exotic," in a poem which chastises people for seeing her as some exotic pornographic creation. But she does so without displaying even a winking acknowledgement that her "look" is part of the marketing apparatus of the show.

The best of the bunch is Poetri, a self deprecating and very funny comedian who tells simple stories of his life views that really bloom into larger creations right before your eyes in ways that are truly magical. However, I couldn't help thinking that he would be more at home on the Def Comedy Jam.  The other standout is an Asian poet, Beau Sai, from Oklahoma who is amazingly confrontational in his delivery. ( "I am so extreme...I crank call myself!")   In fact, by watching his performance I realized what was missing in the rest of the evening and why this is not really theatre, but just a poetry slam in a much bigger venue. What was missing? Another viewpoint!   The reason for the success of such poems as Sai's "Asian Invasion" rant about how he is seeing America as a place where the "hair is getting a little bit darker and the eyes a little bit smaller,"  is that he is shouting it at us as if he knows that we might be disagreeing with him, or at least that we are uncomfortable with what he is saying.  

Other poets on stage make statements about cops killing blacks indiscriminately, and it is stated with a finality and a nobility, and with shouts of agreement from the audience.  However, poetry such as this doesn't examine anything deeper or beyond itself.   It borders on preaching to the choir.  For this to approach the level of real theatre Russel Simmons should seek out a talented New York City Police Officer and have him write a poem about being called night after night into tense and possibly violent situations in decrepit neighborhoods. In theatre it is fine to let your point of view win, but it is criminal to not let the other side have a good shot at making its case.   The play A Few Good Men, ultimately condemns the actions of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, but I'll bet that more people in this country can recite the Colonel's eleventh hour, "You can't handle the truth," speech, or at least a portion of it, than can recite "Tommorrow and Tomorrow," from Macbeth.   Why?  Playwright Aaron Sorkin was not scared to give the best points, the best lines, and a lucid argument to his villain.

Another thing missing was a distinct lack of poetry regarding the War in Iraq, aside from a poem which appeared to have been written shortly after September 11th.  In the text, the poet realizes to her growing horror that by the nature of her genetic makeup she is finding herself and her brothers, (both of whom are dark, arabic looking men,) on the wrong side of President Bush's With-Us-Or-Against-Us policy.

Pockets of the audience were having a great time during the whole evening, other pockets were really silent.   It makes me think that the critics in New York have never seen a Chris Rock standup act, or listened to a hip-hop record.  Eminem regulary belts out deeper and more dextrous verse than anything I saw on stage last night, and he uses bigger words too.

Consider a line from Eminem's first popular single:

My brain's dead weight
I'm tryin' to get
My head straight
But I can't figure out
Which Spice Girl
I want to impregnate.

That line speaks so much of a culture of young people who may be smart, gifted, or talented, but are increasingly facing an all out assault by commercialism that is successfully scrambling their brains.

Being a dramatist by nature I envisioned a grizzled and cantankerous old man shuffling onto the stage and delivering the words of Robert Frost:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,
But still lies pointed as it ploughed the dust.
If we who sight along it round the world,
See nothing worthy to have been its mark,
It is because like men we look too near,
Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,
Our missiles always make too short an arc.
They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect
The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;
They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.

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