By Reza Corinne Clifton
(Modified versions of this article appeared in Motif Magazine and The Providence American Newspaper)
Poet, Christopher Johnson; painting by Sydney Tillet
(Straight Mixed Culture, 2006)
PROVIDENCE, RI—Pick up and flip through various Rhode Island arts and entertainment guides, and you will see evidence of the popularity of poetry, here in Providence and elsewhere. From coffeehouse style open mics, to fast-paced slam poetry competitions, poetry readings and spoken word sessions are regularly scheduled and solidly attended. And RI is not alone in this artistic movement. New York City and Philadelphia, for example, are well-known for some of the poets who have emerged from those urban centers, while cable television’s HBO network premiered hip hop business mogul Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam to a national audience in 2001 that is still hungry for more.
Spoken word is an art, though, a sub-genre of poetry maybe, but an art form no less. This means that public popularity or not, there are no limitations to the style and voice nor to the influences and confluences, and one poet based here in RI intends to demonstrate just that: the sometimes blurry line separating the spoken word medium from other art forms.
The Spoken Word Theater Series is happening on Friday and Saturday, March 17 and March 18 at Perishable Theatre on Empire Street in Providence. With the support of Perishable, this “[i]ntertwining [of] Poetry and Theater for two Explosive evenings” is being organized by Providence poet Christopher Johnson.
Featured in Motif a couple months ago, Johnson is a New Jersey native and Providence resident known for his searing and memorable written and performed poems. He is currently poet-in-residence at AS220; he created, hosts, and performs at the weekly open mic, Virtuosity, at the Providence Black Repertory Company; and he has competed nationally as a member of several Slam Teams including RI’s.
Johnson’s role is different this time, though. As just the host, he will be removing himself from the stage—at least figuratively—to make way for “short one act plays” by the invited poets: Anthony Rucker, Iyaba Mandingo, Ellen Piangerelli, Richard Pleasant and Word, Brown’s Spoken Word Society.
“This festival combines the passion and skill of performance poetry with the thrill and movement of theater. The artists I’ve chosen display the drama of theater in the language of poetry.”
I remember this quality, too, about Mandingo, who performed last summer at the Black Rep’s Sound Session ‘05. Tall, dark, and muscular, with a long beard and lengthy dreadlocks, his appearance was immediately striking and impressive. Yet it was what emerged from his lips that I found truly stunning, as he moved seamlessly from a more inviting call and response type of exchange with the audience to a seething attack on the mainstream racist establishment that left you feeling like a victim of or a tormentor within the system. And his instrument? It was not limited to his voice, but to a guitar that he used too, during what I recall as a love poem.
Still Mandingo will be presenting another side to himself wholly different from all these things I remember and recorded: “Self Portrait is a one man poetry play,” explains a summary, “The audience is invited into the studio of artist Iyaba Ibo Mandingo as he reflects on his life in poetic verse while working on a self-portrait.” Specifically, explains Chris, by the time he is done performing, he will also have completed a painting of himself.
Show times begin at 7:00 on Friday March 17 and 7:30 on Saturday March18 at the Perishable Theater, 95 Empire Street in Providence. Christopher Johnson can be seen weekly on Mondays beginning at 9:00 at the Providence Black Repertory Company, 276 Westminster St., Providence.
Reza Corinne Clifton is a community organizer for high school reform at RI Children’s Crusade for Higher Education. She is also a freelance writer whose articles can be seen in Motif Magazine, The Providence American Newspaper, and at www.RezaRitesRi.com. Visit her website to read more about Christopher Johnson from a July 2005 article.