Using words to describe words can be an exhaustingly difficult feat. But that was what I found myself tussling with last Saturday, as I sat in Jojo’s sipping a Dirty Chai. I was attempting to explain to my suitemate the power of the spoken-word performance I’d seen the night before, featuring three spoken-word artists from The Striver’s Row — Alysia Harris GRD ’16, Joshua Bennett and Carvens Lissaint.
Determined to successfully convey the experience, I pulled out a pair of headphones and turned on a YouTube video of Harris’s “Joy,” a stunningly empowering confession in which she turns sexuality on its head and proudly declares that, “unlike the Red Sea,” her thighs “never parted for a man posing as a god.” “Joy,” she exclaims, is a process of reconciliation, of “finding yourself whole after so long.” To my dismay, my suitemate finished the performance only to remove her headphones and explain that it was “hard to get into in a coffee shop.”
The popularity of The Striver’s Row speaks for itself — they have performed at Sundance, TEDucation and on HBO’s “Brave New Voices.” Friday night’s show garnered a line of students snaking halfway down the main Law School corridor, and ultimately over 150 hopefuls were turned away at the door. The event accomplished a formidable task, tangling together emotional topics as far-reaching as faith, disability, love, sex, justice and race in a manner that was neither stale nor overwrought. Through deliberate arrangements of creative intensity and simpler moments of accessibility, the spoken-word artists ripped open their chests and minds for Yale in a manner that was both unexpected and raw.
Still, the success of The Striver’s Row’s spoken-word performance exists in a very specific live space, one that is bound up in a calibrated trinity of word, body and poet-audience interaction. We understand Bennett when he recites “10 Things I Want to Say to a Black Woman” because of the way his body writhes and his hands carve out shapes in his chest as he speaks. We love Harris because of the way she jumps up and down in hysterical fits of awe, mouthing “That was HOT!” as her fellow performers spew out unexpected turns of phrase. And we trust Lissaint because of the way he guides us through his history of self-hate in “Beauty, Part III,” starting with a suicide note he wrote in fifth grade, “the first time [he] believed someone loved [his] writing.”
This very space the performers create inevitably surrenders you to an emotional rollercoaster, whether you’re religious or not, black or white. During Harris’ “Cab Rides and the Morning After,” I found myself snapping to her words, “I love naked white sheets, how they work like paint thinner to remove last night’s fresco.” Then I cried about “the cab rides you take back into yourself” and, just moments later, I laughed out loud as she spoke about looking “way too good in [her] red dress to be anything Christian.”
There were moments when the performance fell out of balance. Even the most beautifully arranged bits of musical accompaniment felt overly theatrical and jarringly disconnected from the rawness of the show’s poetry. And when, at the end of “Beauty, Part III,” a tearful Lissaint began to point at audience members and say, “you are beautiful,” the interaction bordered on uncomfortable. He had suddenly broken a fourth wall we didn’t realize existed, making us no longer sure of our role as witnesses. We ultimately processed this uninhibited display of emotions in the only way we knew how: as an artistic event. The piece received a standing ovation.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the wordsmiths’ soul-baring, The Striver’s Row performance also begs a personal exploration of our less poetic, routinized selves. Honesty and vulnerability exist in fresh, valuable forms that should be accessible far beyond the prescribed entry points of “artsy” social spheres, dedicated spaces and Friday night performances. We should let them come to Saturday coffee, too.