The Evidence of Silence Broken: Becoming Zell

How Zell Miller III came to be an acclaimed poet-performer is revealed in 'The Evidence of Silence Broken,' his hip-hop performance piece

The Evidence of Silence Broken: Becoming Zell
Photo By Bret Brookshire

When you watch poet-performer Zell Miller III on a stage, fervently, boldly, breathlessly making words into bursts of light and sending them flying like so many constellations spinning into infinity, you're seeing – and hearing, without a doubt – an artist with a seemingly effortless command of language and craft. And when you consider his achievements to date – Best Author/Poet in the Chronicle's 2004 Best of Austin Readers Poll, member of the Austin Slam Team in the 2004 National Poetry Slam, winner of the 1999 Heman Sweatt Symposium Slam and 1999 Austin Poetry Slam, featured performer at Austin International Poetry Festival and SXSW, opener for Nikki Giovanni – you might suspect that Miller emerged from the womb like some hip-hop Athena, fully formed as an artist and spouting a rich, raw, boisterously funny first-person account of his own birth.

But that wasn't the case. Miller came to his present place by a long road, a hard road. There was the young man in penny loafers and a suit that transformed into the young man in a radical's beret. There was the angry young man, the angry young black man. There was the despairing young man with a 9mm gun to his temple and a book of Nikki Giovanni's poetry in his lap. "I put down the gun and picked up the poetry," Miller says. "Poetry literally saved my life."

That story is part of The Evidence of Silence Broken, a hip-hop performance piece that receives its Austin premiere this week. Miller wrote it a few years ago to explore his own coming of age but also because he finds such tales compelling. "I'm always interested in process," he says, "how people became who they are. We all went through these things to get to where we are. We all grow."

Miller felt his story, while specific to his own life and the African-American experience, was a universal tale, and when he presented the play's premiere at the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis in 2003, he was able to discover just how much the piece spoke to people of all ages, races, and conditions, from kids in the juvenile justice system to well-to-do seniors. In fact, an elderly woman told Miller she found his story echoed her search for spiritual meaning. "She said, 'You did in one hour and 15 minutes what I've been trying to do for the last 15 years,'" he says.

Now, Austin audiences – which Miller characterizes as "really slick and smart" – finally have the opportunity to learn this hometown hero's secret origin. Miller credits Hyde Park Theatre Artistic Director Ken Webster with making that happen. After months of unsuccessfully trying to interest other local theatre companies in producing the play, Miller found an enthusiastic producer in Webster, who slotted the show to lead off Hyde Park's new season and is directing it himself. This may not be the kind of material that one associates with Webster, but Miller testifies that the longtime director is committed to bringing out the best in the piece and his sense of stagecraft is taking the show to a new level. It could hardly come at a better time: This fall The Evidence of Silence Broken will be included in an anthology on hip-hop theatre published by Theater Communication Group.

The Evidence of Silence Broken will be performed Sept. 8-24, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. For more information, call 479-PLAY or visit

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Zell Miller, The Evidence of Silence Broken, Hyde Park Theatre, Best of Austin Readers Poll, Austin Slam Team, National Poetry Slam, Heman Sweatt Symposium Slam, Austin Poetry Slam, Austin International Poetry Festival, SXSW, Nikki Giovanni, Pillsbury House Theatre, Ken Webster, Theater Communication Group

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