Def Poetry Jam on Broadway
Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway Conceived by Stan Lathan and Russell Simmons. Poets: Beau Sia, Black Ice, Staceyann Chin, Steve Colman, Mayda Del Valle, Georgia Me, Suheir Hammad, Lemon Poetri. DJ: Tendaji. Set design by Bruce Ryan. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Yael Lubetzky. Sound design by Elton P. Halley. Directed by Stan Lathan.
A revolution is being undertaken at the Longacre Theatre, and it's being led by Russell Simmons and Stan Lathan. The two men behind Def Poetry Jam on Broadway are dedicated to proving that poetry needn't be ancient or stodgy, but that it can still prove driving and inspiring to the current generation.
To get this message out and get it living onstage (after successfully promoting the concept on HBO), they have assembled a troupe of nine slam poets and one DJ intent on bringing their energy and enthusiasm to live audiences under Lathan's direction. But is Broadway ready for them? And are they ready for Broadway?
The audience at the performance I attended represented a healthy cross-section of the city - older and younger men and women of every racial and ethnic background imaginable. Bringing such disparate groups of people together under one roof is a big part of what Def Poetry Jam on Broadway is about. Like the audience, the cast is as diverse as New York (and America) itself. Beau Sia, Black Ice, Staceyann Chin, Steve Colman, Mayda Del Valle, Georgia Me, Suheir Hammad, Lemon, and Poetri share some traits: they all hail from vastly different backgrounds, they all have unique voices, and they're all enormously talented poets, capable of bringing new artistic and linguistic perspectives to a wide array of topics.
The poets' recitations do tend to revolve around certain themes. The first set of poems is about identity, the second series finds each of the cast members paying tribute to a specific person or influence, and the third tackles love. The individual subject matter and presentation of the poems can vary greatly. Georgia Me discusses the difficulties in loving yourself despite your appetite in her moving "Full Figured Woman," while later on, Poetri tips his hat to his lover and tormentor, "Krispy Kreme." The poems are equally as likely to be humorous ("Shine," Lemon's recounting of the black stoker who escaped from the Titanic) as they are thoughtful ("She," Steve Colman's recounting of the life of a female rapper that instructs more about dreams lost and abandoned than it does about rap), as timeless (Poetri's "Money") as they are timely (Suheir's "Mike Check," about the horrors she faces when passing through airports).
The poets all make sure you learn something and are entertained from beginning to end, so on one level (perhaps the most important one), they're a great success. But, there's an underlying sense of uneasiness about the proceedings. A couple of problems prevent the sparks onstage from starting a fire.
First, though the show's DJ (Tendaji), at the beginning of the show, promises the audience a party, the music he's onstage to provide is used sparingly, only a few minutes as a warm-up at the beginning, a little at the start of the second act, and then snippets of songs in between the poets' presentations. The music doesn't detract from the poets, but it seldom supports them; it's a lot of trouble for little payoff.
More significantly, the lack of this kind of stage experience on the part of the performers, especially in this type of venue, doesn't help. None of the poets have the traditional theatre charisma needed to prevent their talent and energy from evaporating in the theatre atmosphere; what might work on television does not necessarily work onstage. The show's amplification further distances the performers' bodies from their voices, not helping them establish the emotional connection with their audience they might in a more intimate venue; that the poets are reduced to standing onstage in front of Bruce Ryan's cheesily colorful collection of walls and neighborhood stoops strikes a similarly untrue chord.
More often than not, the show doesn't work as both theatre and slam poetry. But when three poems near the middle of the first act are recited by multiple poets, it becomes clear that the forum may be used as theatre-style communication. This combination and contrast of voices keeps things fresh and surprising, and it's difficult not to wish the poets would interact with each other more often. The second act's first poem is recited by all the show's women, but the only comparable moment comes at the end when the poets all gather onstage to listen to, and applaud, everyone else's work and then assemble in a line to recite "I Write America," separately and together, the contribution each makes - or does not make - to the country in which they live. This cacophony of voices is what makes Def Poetry Jam most exciting, and when it breaks free of its traditional mold to embrace true theatrical communication, it doesn't happen a moment too soon.
While the show's audience was usually politely appreciative, occasionally one or two audience members would be unabashedly vocal about how they believed or agreed with a certain sentiment, shouting out their approval for all to hear. The most visceral of reactions helped to show that Def Poetry Jam is not out of place on Broadway, but the show refuses to embrace its new home as fully as it might. Still, when it's at its best, Def Poetry Jam exists at once in both the world of mainstream theatre and popular performance, once again bringing together two things that could hardly be more different, their commonalities to be experienced by all.