Dynamically packaged and with plenty of content inside, “Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam” is the hip-hop impresario’s transplant of his acclaimed HBO performance-poet anthology “Def Poetry” to the legit stage. Operation is pretty much a sensational success, though it will require considerable marketing effort to access the targeted young hip-hop demo that doesn’t normally consider theater a high entertainment priority — let alone convince more customary proscenium auds that an evening of streetwise performance poetry might constitute a must-see. At Broadway prices (S.F.-preeming prod is thataway-bound), venture surely poses a commercial risk. But stellar reviews and acquiring that elusive “event” status could make this one of those rare hits that crosses nearly all demographic lines.
Closest corollary would have to be Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls…” nearly three decades back. But that African-American sisterhood hymn’s consistency of authorial voice is very different from the polyglot assemblage here, which offers a canny (but never canned-feeling) cast range of racial, sexual and gender identities expressed in vividly personal terms.
Nonetheless, show’s overall style is ultra urban-contemporary, and reflects hip-hop as a pervasive cultural-generational influence rather than strictly a musical one. The agenda also is pretty politically radical, not to mention angry — mainstream theater patrons may be put off by the consistent invective thrown toward White America, with sole Caucasian performer pretty well toeing the same anti-corporate/government/old-school “The Man” line. It’s also notable that “Jam” lacks a gay male voice among its otherwise all-inclusive chorus of those who feel excluded from “establishment” society.
There’s no faulting how well “Def Poetry Jam” amplifies the issues it does present, however, or how arresting the individual cast members are as writers and confident stage performers. Director Stan Lathan has sculpted a hefty, dense yet never onerous evening in which there’s nary a dud moment.
After a brief routine audience warmup by onstage mixologist DJ Tendaji, nine-member cast bounds on to deliver an ensemble “Prelude.” Then each gets a spotlight moment or three, with occasional multivoice segments holding at bay any monotony the format might generate.
It’s tough to pick favorites among the 40-plus spoken-perf pieces here, just as it’s impossible to rate one writer-performer over another. (Even the somewhat draggily earnest, politically correct screeds of Suheir Hammad work well enough as contrast to others’ more peppery or humorous styles.)
Georgia Me’s “Full Figure Potential” is a “fat girl’s blues” that both celebrates and laments a woman-of-size’s lot. In-ya-face Rastafarian lesbian Staceyann Chin and hetero playa type Black Ice trade erotic boasts in “Listen.” Steve Colman riffs on his own status as a white hip-hop fan in the short-storylike “She.” He and standup-style Poetri deliver a funny dis to poetry’s overdependence on “Metaphors.” Lemon’s “Shine” imagines a black porter’s neck-saving departure from racial subservience aboard a sinking Titanic. Elsewhere, the cast members analyze their ethnic makeup, give infinite props to mom (via Mayda Del Valle’s “In the Cocina”) and bow down before the deity Hip Hop (in a pre-intermission ensemble ode).
Ranging from spunky to languorous, comic to inquisitive, first half’s fireworks provide bracing intro to the distinctive (in physical as well as writing style) performers. But post-intermission things benefit from a more coherent thematic program that starts off with individual reveries on the act of love — or the lack of opportunities to perform such. (Poetri’s “Dating Myself” studies one obvious alternative.)
From there, potent pieces from Black Ice and Georgia Me weigh into the heavy terrain of domestic violence. Serious-minded diatribes on economic disparity, corporate justice, gay-bashing and internalized misogyny follow, each sharply drawn.
Those already swayed by Simmons’ TV “Poetry Jam” aside, few potential patrons are likely to image an all-poetry evening as anything but medicinal. Lathan’s package proves quite the contrary right off, however. Bits of (uncredited) brief choreography abet the performers’ oft-kinetic delivery styles, which in recitative and writerly tenor encompass every influential flavor from rap and comedy club to gospel testifying.
Paul Tazewell’s savvy costumes highlight players’ street cred without tipping into MTV caricature. Yael Lubetzky’s lighting lends rich coloration to Bruce Ryan’s simple, effective set of platforms, scrims and doorways. Sound design by Elton P. Halley is terrific, if, predictably, on the loud side.