Hip-hop takes center stage on Broadway
In 'Def Poetry Jam on Broadway,' nine performers use poetry to tell stories about life, love, and politics.
NEW YORK — On a street map, it's a short 10 blocks from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons's office on Seventh Avenue to Broadway's Longacre Theater. On a cultural map, it can seem like a million miles.
His latest vision, "Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," has made that journey, landing like a meteor in the middle of a theater scene more known for "Cats" and cartoons than cutting edge. While Broadway has seen other nontraditional offerings in recent years, from "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk" and "Rent" to the dance-only "Contact," "Def Poetry Jam" breaks new ground.
Although the show, which opened last week to strong reviews, is little more than nine artists performing their poems on a minimally dressed set, the impact is powerful. Participants tell their stories, using poetry to assault every issue from black teenagers on subways to Latina family roles to American wartime politics. Carefully mixed with the music of an onstage D.J., and salted with the occasional group piece, the evening drives itself forward from one story to the next, driven by the locomotive force of intense expression.
"Def Poetry Jam" rides the rising tide of hip-hop culture. For young people, writing poetry is an outgrowth of hearing rap. Mr. Simmons cites his visits to schools, where, he says, when "I ask kids, 'How many of you write poetry?' ... 80 percent raise their hands. Five years ago, if you asked kids that, they'd be embarrassed to admit it."
Tamika Gray's journey is typical of the route a number of the performers have taken toward their Broadway debut. "I've been reading and performing poetry since I was 8," says Ms. Gray, who performs as Georgia Me. Like all the performers, Georgia Me writes her own material, and weaves personal experience into every piece.
She began by performing at poetry slams in her native Atlanta, winning every one. She eventually started touring around the US, capturing prize money, honing her writing and performing skills, and building a national reputation. "I write stories that revolve around my life and people I know and love," she says.
In "Hit Like a Man," Georgia Me graphically recounts the brutal beating of a young woman, witnessed by her daughter. "That poem came from being in my house and seeing my uncle arguing with his girlfriend, and her being embarrassed, not because he was hitting her, but because I had seen it. I said to her later, 'Why do you have to fight the man who says he loves you?' "
For another one of her pieces, "Full Figure Potential," she explains that "I had been trying for so long to write about the demons of being a big woman, and one night it all flowed out. It freed me. There is nothing you can say about me that I didn't say about myself."
Brooklyn-born Lemon describes his life as "the American dream." Now in his 20s, he spent most of his teen years in and out of prison. "Growing up in Sunset Park, me and my friends all had parents who were heroin addicts," he says. "And they all died together."
Lemon taught himself to read and write while incarcerated. Nine years ago, he watched poets performing at a community center. "I never knew they were poets," he says. "I thought they were rappers."
Explaining the distinction he now lives, he says, "Rap is all about who can sell more records. This is about who is better at expressing themselves."
Energized by the community-center performance, "I wrote a poem right there and read it. And then somebody came up to me and said, 'I have an acting troupe and I want you to be in it.' Poetry got me a job, so I decided to give poetry everything it deserves."
Instead of going back to school, Lemon continued his self-education. "I studied every single day for eight hours, learning what Mikey Pinero and Gwendolyn Brooks and Allen Ginsberg had to say. And Shakespeare."
Lemon, Georgia Me, and the other performers were culled from hundreds of tapes submitted to the Def Jam creative team, which includes director Stan Lathan and Simmons's brother, Danny. "We asked the clubs to get the word out, and to submit tapes of their best people. We got hundreds, which led to the people who were seen on the HBO series' ('Def Poetry Jam')," he says. A new season begins taping in January.
Simmons, who began his career as a music producer for acts like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, bristles at media commentators who use hip-hop and gangsta rap interchangably.
"Hip-hop culture is the most important influence in young American culture today," he says. "Saying what these spoken artists do is gangsta rap is ridiculous. What hip-hop artists always emphasize is the inspirational, the positive.... For me, this show will be a success if a bunch more kids do more poetry and I don't lose a lot of money. I truly believe that poetry will help the community think about higher goals, higher ideals."