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A CurtainUp Review
Def Poetry Jam on Broadway

By Brad Bradley

I wanna be read, loved, memorized. I wanna be a poem that changes lives. ---Suheir Hammad
Def Poetry Jam on Broadway is definitely a surprise. Main Stem autumn winner breaks down considerable cultural, generational and even physical borders in its electric and speedy two hours of in-your-face language with youthful, non-traditional attitude. Never before in this writer's recollection of several decades of theatre attendance has a production attained quite the theatrical hybrid that occurs on the venerable Longacre stage.

Occasional shows have been devoted to narrative and/or lyric poetry (Spoon River Anthology, The Belle of Amherst, and John Brown's Body). Some have sprung from monologues derived from journalistic interviews (Working, and famously, A Chorus Line), and some even staked out the territory of the intense limits and joys of the inner city experience (the long-forgotten musicals The Me Nobody Knows and Inner City, and the aptly remembered "choreopoem" entitled For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.) Def Poetry Jam does all of the above and more; unlike all of the above, it has its writers speak for themselves. Like its aforementioned cousins, it shares the tradition of having characters (fictional or otherwise) offer their own words in presentational form. This tradition of dramatic literature reaches back to Elizabethan and even Greek heroes and heroines, and in the 20th century regularly appears in the focal characters of such diverse works as The Skin of Our Teeth and Fiddler on the Roof.

The program has been devised by hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons and adapted from his own similarly conceived and titled television series. As in the television version, the producer/director is Stan Lathan, who has done a masterful job of threading the diverse personalities and moods of his ten performers and more than three dozen set pieces into a strongly cohesive, dynamic, yet audience-friendly piece of theater to magnetic effect.

While Simmons and Lathan's performing team functions winningly as a passionate ensemble, several of the poet/performers do stand out for their combined abilities as both wordsmiths and theatrical personalities. One of the audience's favorites clearly is Poetri, an easy-going guy who memorably sees himself as both an oversized dervish patterned on Michael Jackson and a victim of the Krispy Kreme bakery empire. While poetry may not be the most meaningful term for Poetri's rap, his narrative is irresistible, and a live performing career should be at his doorstep.

Rooted in both multi-cultural America and the other side of the globe is Beau Sia, the troupe's lone Asian, a self-described Chinese Hulk Hogan who rivets the audience with his eleventh-hour declamation, "The Asians are Coming; the Asians are Coming." More cerebral wordplay is the métier of Steve Coleman, who gives original readings on terrorist threats and the nature of poetry. A devilish sexiness is a calling card for Lemon, whose galvanizing gait and word rhythms give a new verbal anthem for Brooklyn, a vision of a mostly-forgotten passenger on the Titanic, and even a series of "Love Poems." Lemon works so naturally that the audience becomes addicted to his macho prance by his second entrance.

Of the women, Mayda Del Valle, a powder keg of attitude and tenderness in a small package, stands out. Mayda hilariously describes her mother's kitchen, and with Lemon shares an empassioned tribute to music icon Tito Puente. The others, Georgia Me, Black Ice, Suheir Hammad, and Staceyann Chin all contribute their own significant stage presence and energy to keep Def Poetry Jam plugged in at highest power throughout the performance.

Director Lathan wisely has his performers introduce themselves individually as soon as DJ Tendaji smoothly welcomes the audience. Ensemble pieces bring each act to a rousing finish, especially the selection of "I Write America" as an ingenious coda. Lathan even has imbued the production with a substantial choreographic sense. In fact, Def Poetry Jam squarely belongs in the current vibrant argument about what constitutes a musical. Even with its only secondary use of overt music, this reviewer sees Jam at least as much a musical as the Tony-Award-winning Contact. Perhaps the argument's bottom line at this point in time is that the musical as we have known it has so effectively infiltrated all forms of theater that the once easily-located lines enabling us to distinguish a musical from a play or something else have become not only less possible to find, but also less relevant to evaluation of performing genres.

The set of doorways, steps and a visible bare rear theater wall allows the performers a variety of entrances and territories, but nevertheless looks both cluttered and incomplete. The current technology for lighting and projections could have added considerable mood and texture to the production. Paul Tazewell's costume choices, natural and contemporary as they are, smartly accent the individual performers' personalities.

Def Poetry Jam on Broadway
Conceived by Stan Lathan and Russell Simmons
Directed by Stan Lathan
Cast: Beau Sia, Black Ice, Staceyann Chin, Steve Coleman, Mayda Del Valle Georgia Me, Suheir Hammad, Lemon, Poetry, and, the DJ, Tendaji.
Set Design: Bruce Ryan
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Yael Lubetzky
Sound Design: Elton P. Halley
Running Time: Two hours, including intermission
At Longacre Theare, 220 West 48th Street 212/239-6200
Tuesday through Friday at 8:00; Saturday at 5 and 9, and Sunday at 3 and 7.
Viewed on Sunday, November 17, 2002 matinee by Brad Bradley
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