There’s passion, talent and pain in Russell Simmons’ “Brave New Voices,” which introduces youths vying for spots in the National Youth Poetry Slam Championship, a spoken-word competition that’s equal parts rap and theatrical monologue. Yet even those who admire the product might be slightly bored with the familiar “poetry as pro-social release from humble origins” tune and the participants’ MTV-like youthful self-obsession. Latenight is a logical venue for the program, but unless you come to the party with an existing appreciation for their craft, you’re unlikely to become a convert from these voices, brave or otherwise.
The producers do feature an impressively eclectic group of candidates from six U.S. cities with an assortment of hard-luck stories. These range from sobering (18-year-old Jasmine, who is ill with sickle-cell disease) to stirring (Britney, also 18, with cerebral palsy) to self-absorbed, which pretty well defines everybody else.
“My vagina is not your walk-in closet,” one girl says in her performance, underscoring the raw language and emotions on display, which are occasionally powerful but just as often sound overreaching and silly. So while there’s artistry at work here, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea — which is fine for HBO, catering as it does to disparate groups with a patchwork quilt of programming.
The seven-episode project builds toward last year’s poetry finals in Washington, D.C., and the narrative will presumably gain momentum as the event draws near. Personally speaking, though, perhaps due to a plebeian streak or being raised on Motown, what the show bills as the “voice of 21st century America” simply left me hankering for the 20th century.