Poetry Jam is more attitude than art
If you were to judge a theatrical event by its energy level or its ability to draw a younger audience than normally sets foot in places like the Colonial Theatre, then "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam" would be off the charts.
The eight jammers burst onto the stage last night like firecrackers on the Fourth of July, though this is no traditional Norman Rockwell celebration of America. This is the minority report, featuring a cast of characters with darker skin tones and darker visions of what life in the USA is all about.
But energy can only take you so far in life, and in poetry. There are some fine slam poets and hip-hop wordsmiths in the world, but they aren't on the Colonial stage. These are eight young men and women who are often excellent performers, but their talent lies more in attitude than art.
That attitude can be summed up more or less in a song of selfhood that goes something like: "I'm gonna celebrate myself in all my black/fat/Palestinian/Asian/Hispanic-American glory and if you don't like it you can take your pasty-faced/Eurocentric/assimilationist/self-loathing/bourgeois [expletive] outta here."
Well, phat and dandy. Nothing wrong with political art as long as it's art. For the most part, though, these eight are political pamphleteers, more concerned with getting fists pumping than minds grooving. They are entertainers playing to a crowd rather than artists honing their words to discover uncomfortable truths about an inner or outer world. One of the performers, Bassey Ikpi, says that she doesn't want to hide behind metaphors but just speak the truth, as if poets hadn't used metaphors to discover the truth for centuries.
But they are energetic. Two of the hottest performers, Lemon and Mayda Del Valle, celebrate Tito Puente by acting out the sense of excitement the great jazz percussionist produced with his band. But the words are flatter than a political stump speech: "Hands as fast as hummingbirds, spurred on a flurry of wood against cowbells, / And snare drums / Against cymbals, / and skin stretched tight against metal bases . . ."
Their defenders would say that their talent is putting word runs together in the way that Puente and jazz and hip-hop artists put notes together and they all have a dexterity in doing that. But Puente or Miles Davis put notes together in ways that went beyond mere braying or showiness.
Some of the poems deal with love, ethnic cooking, and raising children, but more often the poems are about slights against blacks/Arabs/Hispanics/poor people (and lesbians in the New York show). After a while it all becomes the turn-of-the-millennium version of a '60s hootenanny.
Poetri breaks up the victimization on parade with some funny, self-deprecating lines about his wayward waistline, although his style is more that of a stand-up comic than a poet. As a word-
smith, Black Ice has the truest claim on being a poet. It's admirable that these eight young people want to change the world through poetry -- no easy task in the best of times. Right now their poetry is neither def nor deft enough to do much but play to a crowd of like-minded people.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.
Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam
Performance in one act conceived by Stan Lathan and Simmons.
Directed by Lathan. Set, Bruce Ryan. Costumes, Paul Tazewell. Lights, Yael Lubetzky. Sound, Elton P. Halley.
Presented by Broadway in Boston.
At the Colonial Theatre, through Sunday. 617-931-2787.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.