Sometimes I’m not completely sure what HBO’s Def Poetry is good for. What seems to make the show unique and valuable, though, is that it brings the form known as spoken word into the living rooms of people who may never hear it anywhere else.
The only problem is, I’m not sure anyone’s heard a lot of it during this season’s first four episodes either. Too many gimmicky performances, too many celebrity guests. Spoken word is a tradition, a discipline, and it takes time and effort to get it right. With the fifth episode, finally, we heard a solid half-hour from some battle-tested veterans of the poetry clubs.
The first performer goes by the name of Poetri. A poet’s got to be pretty confident to go around with a name like that, and this one apparently is. His piece was about road rage and the personal politics of driving. It was more rant than poem, but it was an enjoyable bit and I wished we could have heard more from him.
Shariff Simmons delivered a powerful rhyming piece that urged political awareness, touching on John Ashcroft and Enron and bringing home the refrain “fuck what you heard, act like you know”.
Mike Ellison was up next with another call for personal and political awareness. Three strong, experienced performers in a row — these guys have lived lifetimes on stage and it shows.
Next up was Phylicia Rashad of the Cosby Show, the only celebrity appearance of the night. Can’t argue with giving America’s Mom a chance on the show, and I guess it was nice that she selected a poem from her own mother’s chapbook to perform. It was more comforting than electric, but I guess that’s okay.
The energy changed again with an excellent bit by Ratsack, a barefoot bald guy who preaches salvation via freeing of the feet. He worked up a lot of passion about the subject. I’ve always advocated the barefoot sensibility myself, and I liked this guy a lot.
Ratsack was followed by Abyss, who read a passionate love poem for an imaginary woman. I liked his jacket better than his words, but I thought his delivery was pretty good too.
Kevin Coval’s piece was my favorite of the night. He acted out both sides of a live spoken-word battle. The piece was emotional, intense and crowded with pleasurable internal rhymes.
Mollie Angleheart’s piece about the stigma of the “psychotic bitch” wasn’t quite original — I’m pretty sure we heard a similar piece on this show just a couple of weeks ago, but her performance was strong.
Flowmentalz was next, yelling at God like Tevye, eventually succumbing to an entire boxing match with God (you can guess who wins). Great piece — this is the kind of thing I want to see when I turn on this show.
The half-hour ended strong with a funny, honest duet by a pregnant couple, Thea Monyee and Gaknew. They talked about the birth of their first child and the effect parenthood has had on their relationship so far.
If somebody’s only going to catch one episode of Def Poetry this summer, this is the one to see. It’s a solid half-hour of spoken-word, plus a visit from Claire Huxtable — who can complain?