Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 11, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `Def Poetry Jam’
The first thing I knew I had to do before I headed
to the "Def Poetry Jam" was to try to put out of my head all
my existing notions and prejudices about current street culture and
why it doesn’t speak to me — this including hip-hop music and
rap. But I was completely unprepared for the exhilarating experience
that I enjoyed courtesy of hip-hop mogul and entrepreneur Russell
Simmons, and collaborator and director Stan Lathan. It was their idea
to present the vision of nine extraordinary multiracial poets, put
them together on one stage, and have their poetic presentations laced
together by the music spinning talents of rapping DJ Tendaji Lathan.
The young, talented, and tough-looking cast, all veterans of the HBO-TV
series "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry," is providing
Broadway with it first "slam." And a grand slam it is. The
heat and the beat of their often disquieting and disturbing poems
are discharged with gusto ready to empower, enlighten, and enrage
— but also ignite a positive audience response.
Even before the house lights dimmed, I noticed the number of young
people in the theater, representatives of all races, all ready to
welcome and embrace a daring departure from the traditional theater
experience. It may take a bit of convincing to make you believe that
your time will be rewarded by some of the most dynamic and passionate
bursts of rhyming prose you have ever heard declaimed in one space.
Tamika Harper, AKA Georgia Mae, a large and beautiful woman whose
frame is as full of dimension as her poetry, raps rhapsodically about
"Full Figure Potential," and later more seriously about responding
to an abusive relationship in the fierce, "Hit Like a Man."
All poems that give her the edge as the resident diva.
Poetri, his also generous frame supporting his even more generous
consideration of love in all its aspects, offers the hilarious "Dating
Myself" and wondering why and where all his "Money" keeps disappearing.
But nothing tops his thesis on "Krispy Kreme Kroissants" (catch
the three Ks), manufactured (he knows) to keep the black man "down
With her voluminous hair puffed and sculpted like a huge black halo
around her small, delicate face, Staceyann Chin, a New York resident
of Jamaican origin, makes an arresting agenda of gender with "Litany
of Desire," and "Passing" (for straight). Brooklynite
Lemon can’t keep the street smarts from informing gutsy poems like
"County of Kings" and "Shine," about the swim of a
black man who survives the sinking of the Titanic. Lemon shows his
comedic side in a hilarious duet with Latina Mayde Del Valle in "Tito
Puente" ("the Don Corleone of Latin America").
There is turbulence beneath the gentle delivery of the Palestinian-American
Suhier Hammad, who isn’t comfortable with labels as in "Exotic"
("but not erotic"). Self-worth is explored by Black Ice in
"410 Days in the Life," while self-doubt and rage are given
strenuous workouts by Steve Colman in "But" and "Terrorist
Threat." Perhaps my favorite poet would have to be Chinese-American
Beau Sia, whose lithe torso belies his combative personality and ferocious
delivery of "The Asians Are Coming, The Asians Are Coming,"
and other comforting issues.
There is no way to inform you any better about the excitement of hearing
these skilled performing poets recite their poems either alone, in
duets, trios, or as a company, in a theater filled with attentive
listeners who hang on every word. The only thing more to say is that
Bruce Ryan’s classy set design serves the artists, as do their funky
and grungy garb. So let these terrific award-winning poets win you
over. This may be the single most exciting show to open on Broadway
this season. HHHH
— Simon Saltzman
New York. $25 to $65. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
Lot of fans were interested when comedienne Carol Burnett
told all in her 1986 autobiography "One More Time." Fewer,
I suspect, will be interested in the dramatic adaptation "Hollywood
Arms," that Burnett wrote with her daughter, the late Carrie Hamilton.
What works effectively within a literary narrative rarely works in
a stage play. "Hollywood Arms" works so ineffectively, that
one wonders why its famed director Harold Prince couldn’t do more
to speed things up, suggest some cutting of pointless scenes and even
the elimination of some unnecessary characters. One can see the script
working better as a Movie of the Week. Although the play is courageously
blunt, it is also humorless and packs little wallop. It is, to its
credit, an obviously heartfelt memoir of a real person we admire.
The play, like the book, chronicles the early life of Burnett and
the years she spent living a hand-to-mouth existence, first in the
care of her crotchety and eccentric maternal grandmother and then
their life re-bonding with her alcoholic despondent mother who abandoned
them. Act I, which is set in 1941, reveals the spunky young Carol
(now called Helen, and nicely played by Sara Niemietz) remaining chipper
while surviving on welfare with "Nanny,"(overplayed with empowerment
by Linda Lavin) until they leave their low-rent Texas apartment for
the low-rent Hollywood Hills apartment that her mother lives in.
Despite the authorship, don’t expect laughs or even any tears during
the torpid doings that gets a little comic mileage from the wind that
Nanny passes every time she rises from her bed. A crotchety but protective
surrogate parent and faux Christian Scientist, Nanny likes to put
a negative spin on everything and gets her daily lift from pills,
sherry, and movie star chatter. Nanny, however, is an unmistakable
force in Helen’s life, showing up later as a grand caricature in Burnett’s
It seems that Helen’s mother Louise, having divorced her pathetic
husband years before, felt it necessary to go off alone and pursue
her impractical and quickly crushed dream of being a movie star interviewer.
Michele Pawk, who gives the play its most dramatic interest, excellently
plays the disillusioned and emotionally and physically disintegrating
Louise. Act II is set in 1951, and the 20-year-old Helen is now played
by a very fine Donna Lynne Champlin. Working her way through UCLA
by day and ushering at a neighborhood movie theater at night, Helen
also finds time to develop her blossoming talent.
The play affords a diverting moment as Helen shows off her flair for
stand-up comedy. She re-enacts for the family how she entertained
the audience by telling them the movie’s plot from the stage of the
theater when the projector broke down. Champlin ends Helen’s speedily
amusing monologue with a soaring rendition of "I’m Always Chasing
Rainbows." Meanwhile, Jody (Frank Wood), Louise’s tubercular mostly
stupefied ex and Carol’s father makes discomforting return visits
to see his little girl. Other characters who invade the episodic memoirs
include Bill (Patrick Clear), the guileless man that Nanny convinces
Louise to marry before he takes a powder; and Alice (Emily Graham-Handley),
Louise’s daughter from a past affair.
A raid on the apartment by a pair of cops (Christian Kohn and Steve
Bakunas), who suspect some drug dealing, adds some mayhem but little
else. Somewhat miraculously Helen, bankrolled by an anonymous sponsor,
goes off to fame and fortune in New York. Despite the presence of
excellently portrayed characters, and designer Walt Spangler’s realistic
evocation of a nondescript Hollywood Hills apartment, "Hollywood
Arms" is mostly hampered by a loosely strung script. There is
compensation in knowing that Burnett survived these early years to
go on and become one of America’s comic treasures. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.
— Simon Saltzman
York. $20 to $80. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.