It was a special night for the spoken word at the “Poetry on the Vineyard: Def Poetry Reunion” benefit performance at Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center on Saturday. The performing artists, all stupendous wordsmiths, were powerful, emotive, and gripped the audience from the first moment.
Def Poetry differs from written poetry read aloud in that spoken-word poetry is performance-based. The poet’s gestures and body movement, vocal inflections, distinctive rhythms, and facial expressions are all involved, which can make for a special intensity to the feelings it is expressing. Themes tend to touch on social issues, whether from a global, personal, or political perspective, and often intermingle within a single work. The reunion refers to the HBO “Def Poetry” series that ran from 2002 to 2007, which featured performances by established and up-and-coming spoken-word poets as well as famous actors and musicians, and was key in advancing the cultural importance of spoken word poetry. Related was the Tony awardwinning “Def Poetry Jam,” which opened on Broadway in 2002.
The evening originated with the germ of an idea last summer when Def Poetry co-creator Danny Simmons — who came to the Vineyard many times as a teenager — had an art exhibition and poetry performance at the Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center in Oak Bluffs. Mariposa explores African American history and the diaspora experience through the creativity of artists, scholars, storytellers, and community members, fostering equity, understanding, and community building. Stopping by to thank executive director Karla Hostetler before he left, Simmons asked what he could do to help the organization as an artist and producer, landing on the option of producing a concert of Def Poetry, which he does for many nonprofits across the country.
Before plans were completed for the fundraiser, Simmons was doing a reading at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, which is a nonprofit, multidisciplinary arts center. They are dedicated to the celebration of the African American journey and presenting its unique and extraordinary role in the creation of popular culture in America and beyond. In speaking with its director about this summer’s performance, Simmons invited them to be a beneficiary and co-producer. They joined along with his own organization, the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, which fit right in with its mission to build a community-driven art space that provides opportunities to both local artists and curators focused on community revitalization and relevance to the people of the surrounding neighborhoods, and arts-based educational opportunities for local youth who can benefit from them the most.
The evening was expertly MCed by Juanita J, who told us that we were in for a treat, with accomplished artists who were going to feed us, which is exactly what occurred. The show opened with a video of Simmons performing his own poetry — accompanied by jazz musicians — that was full of raw personal memories in a troubled urban society.
Kraal “Kayo” Charles’ resonant voice imbued his pieces with a Shakespearean quality as he modulated both his tone and body language to convey powerful messages. As he spoke, emblazoned images unfurled — we could see them one after another before our eyes. In the poem “How Do We Know?” he asks the question repeatedly, having it slide from funny queries to those far more socially serious, as did his piece in which he perfectly pitched his voice in an unsettling conversation between a daughter and her father who tells her the truth of Black history and that the monsters of her imagination aren’t the ones to worry about.
Tarishi “Midnight” Shuler shared his belief that “poetry is a gift to remind us that no matter how dark the situation may be, it will always show us the light in these troubling times.” His first piece had an opening that stops you in your tracks and is emblematic of the impact of all his work: “My father is the worst photographer in the world. He tried to crop a headshot of my mom with a gun …”
Ursula Rucker, with her strong personality, got the place rocking using vocals and rhythms that she describes as “mystical,” and seamlessly interweave clapping, singing, rap, and spoken word. Rucker began by riffing with the audience and DJ, and then performed works touching on social issues that Simmons describes as impacting her and others. Rucker’s ending message as she kneeled down low at the edge of the stage and looked us in the eye, was her “wanting us all to shine. And we can only do this if we all do it together.”
Emmy, Tony, and Peabody awardwinning Black Ice has a style that is a little more hip-hop, and deals with gritty urban issues. He shoots straight from the heart in his autobiographical work, and feels it’s important to always be his authentic self. Among other topics, he included a poem about his disenchantment with the music industry, coming from his own experience.
The evening closed with Jessica Care Moore, whose work is about women, and Black women in particular. It is exemplified, for instance, in her first poem, “We Want Our Bodies Back,” with powerful messages including, “We need you to stop being less than who you are.”
Simmons reflects, “One of the things that drew me to making Def Poetry was the social change aspect of the poets’ messages. They were all talking about society — how to change it, how we treat each other, how we should treat each other.” The energy when walking out of the theater captured what he had hoped for the night: “I want people to feel activated that they can do something to change the world. That there is something I should be doing to make things better.”
If you missed the performance, rest assured, Hostetler says, “There is lots of talk already about the future.” In the meantime, even though the night has passed, you can make donations at kindest.com.