First, just a couple of things that annoyed me about Friday night’s Def Poetry … and then I’m going to mention a couple of things I really liked.
What annoys me: the duets. I’ve seen this work well in live shows, when two poets get onstage together to see what kind of chemistry their combined voices will create. I’ve performed in duets myself, and I think it works best when the two poets aren’t exactly sure what they’re about to do until they start doing it. Spontaneity may be the single most essential element in spoken word poetry, but Def Poetry is a carefully rehearsed and timed show (more so than it wants to appear to be). I really liked the words Steve Connel and Sekou the Misfit were speaking, but their highly synchronized presentation felt lifeless and mechanical. It would have been better if they just got up there and shouted the words out, or if either of the two had winged it solo.
I’d also like to complain again about the apparent tradition of showing up to read on Def Poetry wearing a t-shirt picturing your favorite rapper or civil rights figure. I know it’s about homage, but it’s just not a good look when serious poets show up on national TV dressed like John Travolta and Samuel Jackson after they borrow Quentin Tarantino’s worst t-shirts at the end of Pulp Fiction. Guys: if you wouldn’t take a date to T.G.I. Friday’s in it … don’t wear it on Def Poetry. I’m referring specifically to Al B. Sure, who did a powerful and well-spoken three minutes in a Big Pun Beefy T, and to the legendary Oscar Brown Jr., an important African-American writer and musician who taped this performance shortly before he died on May 29, 2005 at the age of 78. It was a touching moment, even despite the t-shirt.
Now, what I liked.
I wasn’t expecting much when a 19 year old newcomer from Atlanta with the cliched name of Sista Queen was announced. Well, this performer blew me away, and I hope that anybody who wants to see Def Poetry at its best will find a way to catch her three minutes. She’s an intense, loud, fast talker with an endless supply of breath. Her piece is about the self-cheapening of womanhood, and as her performance built to a crescendo she shot back and forth between mocking poses of cute fawning femininity and furious denunciations of the same poses, switching so quickly you were still catching up with the last change as she shot off into the next one. This is the kind of performance I want to see when I turn on this show. I don’t know how Sista Queen got so good at such a young age, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be hearing more from her.
A good name can have an effect on a poet’s image, and in the case of Big Poppa E. (a white guy who slightly resembles Paul Giamatti in “Sideways”) the main effect is that he always get a laugh when he walks onstage. In fact, he’s a solid and highly physical performer, and he delivered a dynamic and convincing piece, complete with leaps and moonwalks. By the time he walked off the stage, Poppa E had become Big.
I liked Amanda Diva’s “40 Emcees”, an observational piece about the “wannabe jiggas” who rapped on the streetcorners where she grew up, and ended up having kids, getting jobs or fading away.
I liked the strong hiphop voices throughout, from the raspy and earnest Preach to the cool and confident Common.
I was glad to see Staceyann Chin show up on the show (she’s a Def Poetry veteran who recently opened in her own off-Broadway show in New York to good reviews), though I thought she coasted a bit, apparently disinterested in knocking the crowd out as Sista Queen or others on the show did. I don’t know too much about Chin’s work but if this wasn’t her best stuff, I wish she’d have brought the best stuff instead.
Thanks to Billectric for filling in when I missed Def Poetry last week. If Bill or anybody else wants to post other opinions on the latest show, don’t hold back …