On the whole, the slam workshop was a success, and I’m glad I organized it. Though by no means a moment of spontaneous creative revelation or a mass poetic call-to-arms, the poets were well received and we had a better Q and A session than I had expected.
As I walked into Parkview Recreation Center, located on the other side of Howard University from my home, I passed three large murals. The individuals depicted — Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Frederick Douglas respectively – appeared immensely stern and wizened. As I rounded the corner of the building, I passed another one, of the African continent, with a black strip of folks in African costume running down its centre. Being Australian, South-east Asian, and holding acquaintance with people from each of the continents, I hoped that some sort of internal glint of “with-it-ness” might kick in. It did not, but rather, a kind of apologetic discomfort settled about my stomach.
However, upon entering the center, I was pleased to see that Delrica and Dwayne were already comfortably seated, joking around and bopping to the DJ’s hip-hop beats. It didn’t lessen the way I stood out as the sole non-black dude in the building, but I imagine subliminal waves of acceptability flowed from the heads of my two confident African-American friends and down into my hooded jacket.
This being a teen night, there was nobody in the main room, where we were to hold the event, bar two little boys of about six. Instead, the actual teens were huddled around a Playstation, shooting pool, braiding hair, play-fighting outside. After juggling measured returns to the playful boys’ soccer kicks, I helped set up chairs and was surprised to see that a handsome little crowd of about 25 to 30 teens had sat themselves down. I asked DJ SUPA RO to play his “hottest joints” in order to keep the seats warm, then nervously waited for the other poet to arrive, having driven the not insignificant distance down from Baltimore.
DJ Supa Ro keeping the crowd happy
At practically the stroke of eight o-clock, Chris arrived, as energetic as usual, slightly flustered, and carrying a bag of writing supplies.
“Have you ever done a workshop like this before?” I asked him, a thinly veiled question roughly translated as: “You’re an unabashedly white man about to perform in front of an entirely African-American collection of street-seasoned teens…can you handle it?”
He waved off my concern. Being a Special-Ed teacher in inner city Baltimore, I should have realized how wonderful Chris is with such audiences vastly different from the whiter, intellectual urbanites I encounter at weekly slams.
Delrica opened the workshop with a longer poem, before Dwayne B. and Chris took center stage, taking turns to introduce one another. Dwayne, who is undoubtedly one of the dopest cats to walk DC’s streets, was striking in his dark grey outfit of fedora, cable-knit mock turtleneck, baggy jeans and self-knitted scarf. He works for Cityworks, a neighborhood NGO performing youth HIV prevention, (making him essentially my hero) in between knitting scarves for all of his friends and recording albums (making him essentially my man-deity), and the youth nodded knowingly to his homespun themes of gang violence and class struggles. Dwayne exudes smarts and charisma, which is why I had been so excited to have him express interest in the workshop in the first place.
I was more worried, but also very interested, in seeing how the youth would reach to Chris’ poems. His delivery is manic, his delivery stream-of-consciousness quick, and he leaps and tumbles about in improv-dance fashion, a style not closely associated with the body rhythms of the Kanye Wests and Ying Yang Twins of contemporary BET rap programming. Additionally, I feared that his themes, such as childhood autism and disabled athletics, though not entirely alien, may bounce off of this particular audience with little impression. And yes…Chris, who competed earlier this year in the national poetry slam competition in Austin, with his long hair and effete mannerisms, is very white.
I was proved quite wrong again. The natural comedy of his theatrics brought visual relief to his performance, and the workshop was far better for the variety and diversity (in its multiple forms) that came from Dwayne and Chris’ perhaps unusual partnership. The young audience was indeed civil, if not exactly hollering from the stands. After the performance, having not developed a formal workshop, the poets opened the floor to questions, something that I, having partaken in my share of awkward workshop silences, found a little unnerving.
Dwayne and Chris on ‘How to answer questions at a slam poetry workshop’
Janice, who I’d coordinated the event with, threw in some early ‘gimmes’, following which came a slew of excellent, thoughtful questions from various fragments of the audience. Forgetting words mid-poem, finding inspiration, where to find events…Delrica, Dwayne and Chris handled the kids’ questions with enthusiasm, before ceding the floor to the organizers of the teen night and a DC parks and rec rep. As soon as the workshop concluded, and the kids’ dissipated, two junior-high age girls performed an impressive, effective routine which would have looked at-home behind a performing Beyonce or Fergie. I’ve come to love hip hop dance for its looseness and sassy, forthright sensuality, qualities so distinct from the nervous jerk of Black Cat dance nights, often frequented by white-bred men such as myself.
Chris, Delrica, Dwayne, and co-organizer Janice Wright
We took photos, before an enthusiastic brainstorm of future, larger slam workshops, or bringing in Culture Shock, whom I would consider the coolest dance troupe in this city.
I’m going to be around for at least another six months, so I hope to jump into more of this stuff. Though originally a product of class guilt, I’m beginning to see such civic engagement as something I like doing, as opposed to something self-tortured gentrifiers should be obliged to do. I love working with young people, and if they all offer as rewarding an audience as this one, I think many others in circles of new gentry the country over, far beyond the realms of Washington, would find refreshing. Next time, though, I’m going to try and hold something at the Kennedy Rec, involving as many community residents as possible in the planning. Some of whom I hope may be reading this very post.