Poetry is moving from coffeehouses to the Hippodrome

Def Poetry Jam shines rare light on the art form

Stage: Theater/Music/Dance

October 28, 2004|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,SUN STAFF

When many people think of live poetry, they picture their favorite cafe's open-mike night. The national tour of a Tony Award-winning theatrical event is the last thing on their minds.

Those people have no idea what they're missing.

Since 2002, Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam has pushed performance poetry into the mainstream, winning the 2003 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. After a successful international run, the encore tour hits the Hippodrome Theatre for a three-night series tonight through Saturday.

Performers spit poems of love, anger, politics and pleasure, in solo and group formations while a DJ spins beats between acts. Three new poets join members of the original Broadway cast for this tour: Flaco Navaja, Shihan and Ishle Yi Park.

Their goal is to turn heads and open ears with their words. They hail from vastly different backgrounds and heritages, but their bodies are just vessels of their art: the spoken word. They've been able to break out of the coffee shops and into Broadway. It's activism in the form of a five-minute poem.

"The real work is kicking this message to the nonconverted," Navaja said. "We're the voice to the voiceless. Now you can go into a theater and see something that looks like you."

Theatergoers might think it a little odd that a performance poetry show is popular enough to play venues such as the Hippodrome. It's just as odd for the poets. They're not used reciting the same verses onstage to so many people again and again. They cut their teeth in coffee shops, playing to family, friends and fellow artists. Back then, they were expected to freshen their act with new material. Now, it's a little different.

Still, Navaja sees the advantages to riding out the same poems for a whole tour.

"I feel like it's almost like being in the gym every day working out," he said. "When I go back home and do cafe readings, I feel a lot more disciplined and a lot more worked out and in shape."

Another twist the performers face is the makeup of the crowd. Usually, it ranges from middle-aged, upper-middle class theatergoers who have read the show's good reviews to open-mike patrons to inner-city youths who relate to the scene. The mix can be nerve-wracking to the poets, who are light years from their comfort zones. A Korean-American, Park is used to performing for other Asians near her home in Queens, N.Y. She sees the different audiences as a challenge she must overcome every night.

"I like that challenge because it forces me to come out of my comfort zone and communicate," she said. "That's what poetry should do - to speak to all different kinds of people. I want my poetry to build bridges between different communities."

"Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam" hits the Hippodrome Theatre at France-Merrick Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. tonight, tomorrow and Saturday. The venue is at 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $22-$47 plus surcharges. Call 410-752-7444 or visit www. france-merrickpac.com.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 34.

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