Bob Holman, who co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and introduced competitive poetry “slams” to New York, served as the evening’s host. A ringmaster/
jester in a small black hat who has a boundless enthusiasm for spoken word, Holman intro’d a 30-minute segment of “The United States of Poetry,” a five-part series he co-produced that will air on PBS beginning Monday. Three of the evening’s performers are featured in the innovative series.
The video excerpts were the sole concession to multimedia at the Wadsworth; special effects were strictly of the verbal kind. The fast-paced show kept production valuesto the basics — microphones and simple spotlights — and Holman’s hat was the closest thing to a prop — unless you count Luis Alfaro’s black lingerie.
TX:Produced by UCLA Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed Feb. 3, 1996. TX: “Desire is memory,” L.A. poet Alfaro says, and in three long poems he conjures up the Pico-Union neighborhood of his childhood and the gay disco culture of his adolescence. Gradually stripping down to his customary slip as he reads, Alfaro moves deeper into the realm of loss. Compassion infuses his work, whether addressing a husband’s brutality toward his wife, TV novelas, the church , loquacious drag queens or the ravages of AIDS. With his mix of humor, rage and pathos, Alfaro set the climate for the evening.
Fellow Angeleno Wanda Coleman, a longtime luminary in the local poetry community, creates a different character with each poem, her voice an expressive precision instrument. Whether luxuriating in Neruda or mourning the human cost of soul-crushing corporate machinery, Coleman, who has said her work is part of the black oral tradition, makes language tactile.
Obie-winning playwright/performer Dael Orlandersmith brings a similarly fine-tuned muscularity to her reading, heightening the internal music of her poems. Most remarkable about Orlandersmith’s work is the powerful sense of spirituality she evokes amid urban despair and decay. She finds “Mary Magdalene on Avenue D” and “the souls of young boys … trapped beneath the hoods of stolen cars.”
Nuyoricans Everton Sylvester and Maggie Estep survey the urban landscape with droll disdain. Sylvester, a dub poet with a compelling, Jamaican-accented baritone, observes “alarm-clock culture” from the perspective of one who is dispossessed; his rant against those who consider it “fashionable to have an alternative view” is both wildly funny and a scathing, up-to-the-minute portrait of conspicuous consumption.
Estep, who has played a leading role in giving poetry a pop pedigree through her work onMTV, skewers hipster neuroses and modern mores in her monologues. “Why I’m Fond of Itty Bitty Backpacks” sardonically unravels an alarming fashion trend while leading the listener to an unexpected conclusion about self-worth and letting go.
As varied as their voices may be, these poets stand together as outsiders in an age of conformity, chroniclers of a difficult time. Ringleader Holman notes in his high-energy “1990,” which traces sociopolitical upheaval on a global scale, that “the world is changing, but we’re not.” The act of returning meaning to language is a subversive stance in an era when, Holman says, “they don’t even know what it is, but they’ve already got an option on it.”
Nuyorican Poets Cafe Live! is an elegantly produced sampling of spoken word, and marks the first time UCLA’s Center for the Performing Arts has presented a show in this genre. A provocative and entertaining evening, its format presents a drawback: The necessarily short sets allotted each poet deny the audience the sustained energy and communion with the artist that longer readings allow.
Nonetheless, the night demonstrated the undeniable power and appeal of an evolving art form, a fusion of literature, theater, performance art and standup comedy that has an attitude and packs a wallop. The word is out.