Slam up racial identity with poetry

Not since Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five hit us with “The Message” has hip hop spoken directly to social change — at least not in the mainstream. But “In the Cypher: A Poetry Slam” at the Yale Cabaret this weekend reminds us of those now mythic lyrics: “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge.”

“Cypher” is not a traditional poetic display, so even if iambic pentameter fails to set you ablaze, the fast-paced, intense and pointed rhymes pervasive in this piece certainly won’t. Yalies for whom Wordsworth and Spenser haven’t exactly come alive are in luck.

Jointly conceived by Sarita Covington DRA ’07 and Gamal Palmer DRA ’08 and directed by Patricia McGregor DRA ’09, this original piece addresses the issues of race and ethnicity, one’s skin and what’s within through a mix of poetry, dance, history and hip hop.

Graphic, raw and quite possibly the inspiration for the phrase “in your face,” “Cypher” reveals a range of perspectives — from the historical to the contemporary, the black to the white — through six poets’ reflections on life.

The premise is simple, the development intricate. The audience is privy to a slam poetry competition between five contestants competing for a glass of water and $20. Audience participation enhances the performance’s multiple dimensions, while contributing to the energized atmosphere characteristic of a slam poetry event.

Interspersed among the rounds, the audience sits in on intimate conversations that reflect the effects of race and skin tone on the poets’ various experiences. A wealth of perspectives is achieved as white, black and self-proclaimed Filipino-Spanish-Chinese poets inform the discussion. While the production focuses on expression through words, interpretive dance sequences also add to the diversity of the show.

The result is a performance that is at once gripping and elusive. Its underpinnings center on a multiplicity of experiences in relation to stereotypes and their roots in historical fact, and reveal the evolution of prejudices throughout history.

The evening’s emcee, DJ Charmed One (Brian Henry DRA ’07), a character that continuously reflects the theme of candor that informs the entire piece, begins and ends the performance. From crowded bus discussions to poetic displays to the very language of expression, honesty is the guiding policy.

Rather than overly artful, literary phrases, the language is direct, rough, potentially-shocking and most importantly, reflective of the reality in which the poets live. A slam poetry contest is about expression and the lack of inhibition — the ability to say anything — but not necessarily concrete structure and form. Even readings from the cited sponsor, “The Book of Knowledge,” preserve honesty — even honesty to an unsettling and gripping extent.

In spite of the comedic moments (i.e. the nicknames masterfully delegated by DJ Charmed One), when Ashley the waitress (Ashley Bryant DRA ’08), Tra La Lizzy (Teresa Lim DRA ’09), Who Dat (Barret O’Brien DRA ’09), Skittle (Palmer) and Na Na Noo (Nondumison Tembe DRA ’09) speak, the poetry speaks through them almost as much as they speak through it.

Their voices are, in effect, lent to those who cannot bring themselves to the sole microphone on an empty stage, those who cannot brave the cypher — the circle in which hip-hop poets battle — and yet still yearn for understanding.

The bassist, known to the audience as Johnny D (Jonathan Davenport ’07) provides musical embellishments to underscore the diverse worlds reflected in and created by the poems.

The effect is an emotional journey with hidden surprises around every corner. Just as the mood begins to lighten, the audience is hit with insights and reflections that jerk even the most superficial of observers into thought.

If the performance succeeds overwhelmingly in one aspect, it is in inspiring thought. As questions are quite literally dispersed throughout the audience, the strips of paper remain in the audience after the performance has finished, leaving the possessor in pursuit of answers difficult to articulate and confront.

“Cypher” is explicit. It is unafraid to ask the hard questions, while realizing that it may not easily pinpoint the hard answers. For those looking to find a series of original and authentic streams of consciousness, derived from various viewpoints and spoken aloud in poetic voice, “Cypher” is the destination.

Just be forewarned: “It’s about to get real in here.”

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