Word Is Out

After conquering Broadway, Def Poetry Jam goes national and Pro Arts snags them


Poetry went uptown in 2002. In the biggest city in the country, in that tony neighborhood that means theatre, this underappreciated little language-driven art form that has scraped by in the coffeehouses and bookstores of the land muscled its way in among the megamusicals and million-dollar star vehicles and shouted, "Hey, America, the word still matters!" It was a gutsy move putting poetry on Broadway, but producer Russell Simmons had already succeeded in putting it on television – as an award-winning HBO series – so he had reason to believe that poets could find an audience on the Great White Way.

Still, we aren't talking dead white European masters of verse here. These were living poets, black poets, Asian poets, Latino poets, female as well as male poets. They were writing poems about now, about riding the subway, absent fathers, junk-food cravings, being broke, the color of one's skin and the discrimination that comes with it, creating belief in a world that makes it hard to believe in anything, and making poems because they're important and they give a person a voice, a way to write history.

All the more amazing then that in that bastion of high-gloss, high-priced entertainment, Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway enjoyed a six-month run, with a flurry of rave reviews and a Tony Award for Special Theatrical Event. The show gave poetry a new level of respect in the culture.

Now, the Def Poetry Jam has hit the road, to share its sharp, funny, insightful, and thrilling voices with 32 cities all across the country before doing the same in London, Paris, Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. While Austin may not be one of those communities in need of a lesson in the vitality of poetry – after all, we sent a team to the finals of the National Poetry Slam just last year, and we're two months away from the 12th annual Austin International Poetry Festival – the opportunity to see this program of pioneering spoken word artists perform live is nonetheless exciting.

How the Jam came to be in Austin this week was, in the words of Pro Arts Collective Artistic Director Boyd Vance, "a fluke." While making calls to secure the performing rights to the Suzan-Lori Parks play Topdog/Underdog (which Pro Arts mounted in January), Vance wound up on the phone with a vice-president of the William Morris Agency, which carries Def Poetry Jam on its theatrical roster and was looking for a presenter for the show in Austin. When Vance learned that Simmons was committed to working with nonprofits, especially those in African-American communities, he felt that it might be feasible for Pro Arts to do the presenting. He made a frantic round of calls to find an available venue around the time the tour would be in Texas already (Feb. 10-15 in Dallas) and scrambled to pull a lot together in a very short time. Fortunately, Vance found allies in his quest. "A lot of people have really come to the rescue," he says, citing individuals on the poetry scene, in the theatre community, at media outlets, and elsewhere.

Thanks to their combined efforts, the Def Poetry Jam Broadway Showcase will arrive at the Paramount on Feb. 16, and to make the night even more special, a VIP reception will take place at Arthouse before the 7:30pm curtain, with another reception after the show, a post-show poetry slam one block over at the Hideout, and a post-slam party at Sidekicks. And with help from Huston-Tillotson College, the UT-Austin McCombs School of Business, and the UT-Austin Multicultural Information Center, Pro Arts will launch a local voter registration drive as part of Simmons' national Hip-Hop Team Vote initiative.

To some, this may seem like a lot of energy and effort and fuss for what is, in the end, just poetry. Yeah, just poetry. Just ear-ringing, heart-charging, truth-telling, life-affirming, life-changing poetry. Get the word out. end story

Def Poetry Jam Broadway Showcase will be performed Monday, Feb. 16, 7:30pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, call 314-5000.

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Robert Faires, Jan. 9, 2004

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African-American arts, Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, Pro Arts Collective, Boyd Vance, Def Poetry Jam Broadway Showcase, HBO, Huston-Tillotson College, McCombs School of Business, Multicultural Information Center, Hip-Hop Team Vote

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