Def Poetry Jam
provides enlightening entertainment
REGISTER THEATER CRITIC
- Des Moines Register
They came, they rhymed.
And we all had a good time.
Def Poetry Jam enlightened as much as it entertained Tuesday night at the Civic
Center of Greater Des Moines.
Subjects and styles sometimes merged but usually diverged, from the powerful
Chuck D-like stylings of Black Ice and Lemon to the stand-up flavored humor of
Poetri and the more traditional spoken word of Suheir Hammad.
The fast-moving format, created by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and turned
loose on Broadway, kept the Civic Center audience of about 1,200 off-balance for
most of the evening. The lighthearted moments, at times, came across as coasting
- almost squandered opportunities for such a talented group to shape the hearts
and minds of the next generation of poets and thinkers.
Poetri, a big teddy bear with a thousand-watt smile, lit up the crowd with his
humorous musings on Krispy Kreme doughnuts ("a conspiracy to keep the black man
down and round") to the unnerving realization that his love-at-first sight
wasn't quite what he thought: "Of all the drag queens, he must have been the
Stacyann Chin rattled off a series of "I believes," as in "I believe in monsters
lurking under the bed because they give our children something to conquer before
the world begins to conquer them."
Then she catches you with this: "I believe Bert and Ernie are straight/ believe
they're just waiting for the right girls to come along . . . And I believe most
lovers will lie to you eventually and though I believe two wrongs don't ever
make a right sometimes slashing his tires makes you feel better."
Later during a series of poems on love, Chin used words both mundane and profane
as part of what I can only describe as a verbal orgasm. It was just one example
of the power of words, many of which can't be printed here, that performers used
to maximum effect.
It was during the love poems - one of the few times a common theme was worked
with - that the power of the troupe's diversity felt diluted. The final group
scene, which nicely illustrated the variety of voices that now speak as part of
America, was more effective and maintained the sharp edge that gives Def Poetry
Jam its vitality.
Georgia Me recited her "Fat Women's Blues" and celebrated black men, then
offered up a reading on safe sex ("no glove, no love"). Black Ice, Lemon and
Flaco Navaja traded in subjects ranging from self-empowerment to inner city
poverty and violence to single-parent families.
Shihan's "Negro Auction Network" elicited nervous laughter while he ripped on
black men "with four different size rims on the same car . . . talks loud in
movie theaters, restaurants, libraries and anywhere else quiet is appreciated .
. . this Negro will caricature the entire race until no one expects anything
from the blacks."
While the in-your-face provocative poems packed a punch, there were a number of
introspective, personal narratives that were equally powerful.
Ishle Park, the daughter of Korean immigrants, talked about "drowning in the
land to which she swam . . . Who is here to teach us how to swim?"
When Hammad, a Palestinian-American, recited a poem about airport screenings and
got to this line - "I am always 'random' "- nothing more is needed to know how
9/11 has changed her life.
On Tuesday night, Def Poetry Jam changed - or at least improved - a few lives as