Uniting the future and the past Theater review: Poets of 'Locks & Links' use their words to unlock or tear down the walls that keep black men separate at Theatre Project.

November 11, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

One-third of the way into "Locks & Links" at the Theatre Project, one of the show's two performers threatens to "pull out my literary 9 millimeter."

Making good on that threat is largely what this dramatized poetry anthology is about.

Created and performed by Mitchell Ferguson and Bashi, two local poets, "Locks & Links" explores a host of issues pertaining to black men in today's society. But while the show examines the present and looks ahead to the future, it does so in an ancient and honored African oral tradition -- that of the griot, or storyteller.

Of the two poets, Bashi -- the younger and taller of the two -- writes poems with a more narrative quality. The most stirring of these is "World of Glass," about a Vietnam vet who shuns all the glass barriers confronting him in his day-to-day existence -- from the television screen to the bank teller's bulletproof glass to the most disturbing of all, the mirror.

The evening's central theme is the effort to break down the walls that confine and separate black men. The production begins with a pantomime in which the performers push against invisible walls. And, as Ferguson says in the title poem: "we got to break these locks/we got to get from behind these walls/we got to find those links/that makes these walls fall."

As this excerpt indicates, Ferguson's work tends to be more metaphorical and lyrical. While this tendency can make some of the poems difficult to grasp on first hearing, many also have a musical quality.

The rambling "Black and Proud, Or God Bless America, Or Chains" has a bit of rap flavor. "That Martin Luther King Thing (And All That Jazz)" actually includes a song. And, "The Waters That Run" is reminiscent of an old-time spiritual.

The theatrical element of the production, which lasts about 75 minutes, stems primarily from rather obvious moments in which the performers act out passages of the poems. For example, there's some mimed ball playing in "Infinity Rounded to The Nearest Nothing," a poem in which Bashi laments being typed as a basketball player because of his height, and presumably, his skin color. "Father Time," about that old codger who's seen and done it all, begins with Ferguson assuming the guise of an old man.

However, in the final poem, "Strange Fruit: A HipHop Allegory," the image of Ferguson with a noose around his neck is so literal -- and lacking in danger -- that it detracts from the words of Bashi's prose poem.

Overall, the coherence and flow of the production would benefit from the eye of an outside director. Currently, the direction is credited to the poets themselves, who have more than enough to do, writing and performing. But with three more performances scattered throughout the Theatre Project season, there should be ample time for refinements.

After all, the spirit of the work is already there.

Bashi and Ferguson call their performance company "The Men of Nommo," a term meaning "the word" in the language of the Dogon people of Mali. Words are the heart of "Locks & Links," and while those words aren't always pretty, the general impression they leave is hopeful, uplifting and celebratory.

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