A show featuring nine poets and a live DJ, Def Poetry Jam was brought to the Longacre Theater by Simmons -- a rap impresario and founder of the seminal hip-hop music label Def Jam -- on the heels of his early '90s success with the HBO series Def Comedy Jam. Understanding the link between rap music and the emergence of Slam Poetry, a new genre of performance verse that emphasizes high-energy delivery, Simmons came up with his next HBO venture, Def Poetry Jam, which found loyal audiences last year in a late-night slot.
The show's next step, to Broadway, seems at once natural and astonishingly daring. Live presentation has always been best for a form that is not quite rap and not quite free verse monologue; the show is more accessible, stimulating, heart-rending, and beautiful than many will anticipate. By the end of the two-hour (with intermission) evening at the Longacre Theater, these poets have fulfilled the boast of "Prelude," their first group piece: that they will deliver profound words, emotions, and testimony from the ever-changing American cultural frontier.
When the lights dim and the onstage DJ for the evening enters, the audience's applause indicates the same respect one feels for a conductor at the Philharmonic -- and everyone recognizes that we're in for a night with its own definitions, its own traditions. As poets of many colors and cultures gather onstage, Suheir Hammad -- a Palestinian-American from Brooklyn -- declares, "I wanna be read, loved, memorized / I wanna be a poem that changes lives." An African-American poet from North Philadelphia named Black Ice says, "I wanna raise my poems like kids / Keep them from jail bids / Pessimism and negativity." And Steve Colman, a white guy based in New York, promises "...ideas that kiss similes so deep that metaphors get jealous."
The subjects, themes, styles, and feelings that follow are all remarkable. Poets perform individually and, in some cases, two or three at a time. Mayda Del Valle delivers an ode to her mother's cooking that disposes of Emeril and the Food Network in a single line, and a piece about the blindness of a society that asks a woman of black and Latin extraction to check a box stating who she is. Black Ice powerfully implores young black men to defy the doom-ridden paths laid for them. Equally heartfelt is Staceyann Chin's work, delivered in an intoxicating Jamaican lilt; at one point, she rails against her ability to "pass" in a society that values people who are light-skinned and straight.
As soon as you think the show is going to smother you with sincerity, a funny piece has you belly laughing. An L.A.-based poet with a donut habit, who calls himself Poetri, refers to the objects of his addiction as "glazed drugs" and addresses, hilariously, his money troubles. More touchingly, the plus-sized Tamika Harper -- also known as Georgia Me -- tells of living overweight in an underweight world and of freeing herself from the grip of an abusive relationship. Hammad contends with being praised by men for her "exotic" beauty and for being "randomly" selected every time for bag checks at the airport. And Beau Sia, an Asian man from Oklahoma, talks about the inspiration of the big skies under which he grew up.
Not only is this incredibly diverse group just as American as the whiter-toned casts more familiar to Broadway audiences, the impression is that they have thought deeply about what the idea of America means because their own experiences are so often at odds with this country's promises. The themes at hand are those that America has always contended with: freedom, family, diversity, and the maintenance of values and ideals in a country that seems to have lost both at times. Lemon, a Puerto Rican standout, brings so much verve to his delivery of poems on topics such as prison and faith that any attempt to describe them in a review would weaken their impact.
Def Poetry Jam is a test of whether or not a Broadway audience -- i.e., mainstream America -- is ready to embrace an art form created by people of the streets. The thrill of the attempt to bring these disparate communities together is palpable as theatergoers take their seats. Though the evening is shorter on four-letter words than your average rap record, it's long on honesty, raw emotion, funny observations, and hardcore revelations. The show is like a hyper-real version of A Chorus Line fueled by the caffeine of a thousand cups of coffee -- black, latte, and everything in between. It proves that Slam Poetry could be for a younger generation what hip-hop used to be: both personal and political, unconcerned with commercialism and fame. Those who thought that Russell Simmons wanted to take the Great White Way and paint it black will learn that he really wants to paint it every color in the spectrum.