Beat stays cool, so words heat up on their own

A night of theater that viewers won't soon forget


April 04, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Whatever preconceived notions you have about spoken word or performance poetry, please check them at the door. Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam, which plays the Hippodrome Theatre Friday and Saturday , features seven poets performing urgent, revelatory pieces that delve into politics, sex, religion and personal histories.

No elaborate, complicated props adorn the stage, and cast members sport regular street gear. Each poet -- a Palestinian, a Nigerian, a Chinese-American, three African-Americans -- offers kaleidoscopic views unflinchingly, humorously, sometimes movingly.

"There are no loud beats behind these poets," says executive producer Russell Simmons, who's calling from his office in New York. "You're right there with the words, and you have to deal with what the poets are saying. All of these poets grew up with rap, so that influence can't be separated from what they're doing on stage."

The youthful hip-hop connection (all of the performers are in their late 20s and early 30s) is what Simmons banked on when he brought the production to Manhattan's Longacre Theatre last year. Before taking Def Poetry Jam to Broadway, the creator of Def Jam Recordings, Def Pictures and the Phat Farm clothing line had produced the show for HBO as a less-raucous alternative to the hit HBO series Def Comedy Jam. It ran four seasons, winning a 2003 Peabody award.

But an upfront, urban presentation like Def Poetry Jam had never stormed Broadway before. Along with acclaimed director Stan Lathan, Simmons tailored the show for the theater, cherry-picking "the most enlightening and most dynamic poets" from the HBO series. The production was "workshopped," or tweaked, in San Francisco for seven months before heading to the Great White Way.

When Def Poetry Jam opened on Broadway in November, the response was immediate. The New York Times called it "the most singular offering in mainstream New York theater these days." With ticket prices set as low as $26.25 (the typical cheap Broadway ticket goes for $45), the show attracted many Latinos and blacks -- rare faces in a mostly white theater. Last year, the production won a Tony for best special theatrical event.

But despite all the critical success, Def Poetry Jam didn't exactly break box-office records. Several factors -- war and a sagging economy chief among them -- may have contributed to the less-than-record-breaking turnout. But Simmons, 45, says that preconceptions about spoken word may have kept some away.

"It's not all about incense and head-wraps and alternative thought," says the hip-hop entrepreneur. "These poets have a lot of ideas that people can relate to, young people especially. We've seen the influence of poetry grow. There's a more commercial influence in it now. You ask high school students if they write poetry, and 80 percent of them will say, 'Yeah.' They're listening to rappers like Rakeim and Jay-Z, and they're expressing themselves in their own words," Simmons says. "The poets in the show are free thinkers, not like the rest of us who watch TV and become sheep."

Suheir Hammad

Suheir Hammad , one of the most overtly political poets in Def Poetry Jam, is exquisitely beautiful, a Palestinian-American woman with a sculptured face and luminous eyes. She grew up in Sunset Park, a hard-knock section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"It wasn't the easiest neighborhood for immigrants with expectations," says Hammad, who's calling from her apartment in Jersey City.

The 30-year-old poet was born in a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. Her parents, both from Palestine, brought Hammad to New York when she was still an infant. Her mother was a homemaker, her father a grocer. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Hammad escaped her rough environment through books.

"I was a voracious reader," she says. "I started writing when I started reading."

Her work, which largely centers on women's issues in America and abroad, has more of a literary quality than the other poems in the production.

I don't know how bad a life has to break in order to kill

I have never been so hungry that I willed hunger

I have never been so angry as to want to control a gun over a pen ...

"I have always been more interested in the work on the page," Hammad says. "If it comes through on the stage, fine. But I have always been more interested in my legacy on the page."

Before appearing on the HBO version of Def Poetry Jam, Hammad had limited stage experience, reciting her poems at universities, small clubs, even homeless shelters. The writer, who has published her work in several periodicals and anthologies, certainly has presence. But she doesn't deliver her lines bombastically or in the convoluted rhetorical style generally associated with spoken word. She's poised, her clear voice smoothly changing tones and cadences as she recites her poetry.

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