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The Word Begins

Poet-performers Steve Connell and Sekou (tha misfit) use words to unusual effect in this work about life in 21st-century America.

By Washington, DC
Steve Connell and Sekou (tha misfit)
in The Word Begins
(© Scott Suchman)
Steve Connell and Sekou (tha misfit)
in The Word Begins
(© Scott Suchman)
In the beginning is the word, and in the middle are still more words, and by the end, it's a torrent of words. This is The Word Begins, now at Signature Theatre's intimate Ark space. Written and performed by a pair of slam poet-actor-playwrights named Steve Connell and Sekou (tha misfit), this unusual if not completely satisfying theatrical work is full of hopeful, defiant, angry, sly, inspiring, comic, and self-mocking words which slam into each other and the audience in what sounds remarkably like stream-of-(sub)consciousness riffs on life, love, race, sex, and religion. It's definitely not your father's poetry.

Rather than using words to construct scenarios or to score points, the poet-performers use them to deconstruct ideas, concepts, images, and preconceived notions of life in 21st-century America. And while the audience is taken on an enjoyable one hour- and-forty-minute journey, it's a journey that seems to lack a clear destination. Perhaps the "free association" strictures of slam poetry are better suited to exposing foibles than formulating solutions. Or maybe Connell and Sekou (tha misfit) are too steeped in satire to ever get to a real call-to-action. Or just maybe they believe it is up to us to make what we will of the issues they raise. A clue may be found in the declamation that comes in the first few moments: "A poem cannot be finished; it must be passed on."

The pair performs on a minimalist, post-modern set designed by Myung Hee Cho that features nine large video screens, proving once again that pictures are also worth quite a few words. Connell and Sekou (tha misfit) are polished performers and each is adept in negotiating complex passages with a brightness that makes each thought seem freshly minted, even when they speak in tandem to emphasize a point. Their timing is exquisitely precise as they seamlessly flow through non-linear scenes of intense and edgy drama or poignant comedy.

At times, the electricity of their passion and energy is almost overwhelming, especially when augmented by Chris Lee's dynamic, bold lighting and Adam Phalen's evocative sound design, which incorporates original music by Sekou (tha misfit).

Connell, who is white, and Sekou (tha misfit), who is African-American, use their ethnicity to fearlessly explore issues of race that may verge on the uncomfortable for some audience members, or which might be stridently crude or even hysterically funny. In one particular passage, the poets call for intermingling of the races sexually (right there, on stage, in fact) to create a "beige society."

One of the work's most effective and incisive scenes is when Connell's character encounters Sekou (tha misfit)'s character in a Hallmark store, and helps him learn to express his own emotions to his woman rather than rely on cheap greeting card sentimentality. And in a sketch that offers startling counterpoint, they explore degrading attitudes toward women on a "hip-hop reality TV show" that pushes a few boundaries.

Assuming the poet-performers continue to work on this show, it will be interesting to see where this Word ends up.


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