March 6, 2007

Unmasking the Spirits

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Most traditional academic poetry readings feel stilted, stymied with a sense of false piety as if the audience were parishioners at a liturgy wherein they were expected to reverence the “holy text,” which, more often than not, seems mumbled in a dead language. On the other hand, SLAM! poetry and other self-consciously “alternative” poetry movements that emphasize the performative aspect of an oral tradition too often forsake linguistic richness in the poems themselves. Such performance poets may pander to a populist aesthetic that, at its worst, devolves into propaganda, hi-jinks, and shock tactics. Between these two unfortunately commonplace extremes, however, one rejoices to encounter a poetry that attends to the immediacy of theatricality while having an awareness of the complex linguistic mediation that drives poetic texts.

Poet and performance artist Roger Bonair-Agard riveted the Kitchen Theater this weekend with three performances of his one-man show, Masquerade: Poems from Calypso and Home as part of the Kitchen Counter Culture series. The Kitchen Counter Culture series brings nationally and internationally renowned artists to Ithaca to present one-person shows that feature innovative dramatic monologues with highly-charged politicized themes. Bonair-Agard’s work examined his identity as a black Trinidadian-American in “self-imposed” exile from his homeland. Through a well-orchestrated medley of songs, poems, storytelling, dance, and drama, Bonair-Agard’s work negotiated the way that his personal identity is both shaped by and emblematic of his cultural inheritance.

The show began with a rousing chant accompanied by frenetic rhythmic accompaniment on an African drum. Bonair-Agard ignited the audience with a sense of hovering near a precarious combustible as his crescendo of “light da match” quickened their collective pulse. His invocation struck me as ironically using many of the rhetorical techniques of Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo,” a once popular early 20th century performance poem that appropriated chants, ecstatic onomatopoeia, and whispered talismanic watchwords in its racist portrayal of Africans as “savage” yet romantic primitives in touch with an earthier and more optimistic natural religion. Bonair-Agard’s work, by contrast, assiduously investigated the prejudices and stereotypes that surround Trinidadians and others of Afro-Carribean descent. As he joked following his introductory drum-solo, “This show will tell how it was to be both black and me in the ‘80s.”

He then launched into a poetic séance with the propulsively quick tempo of an urban street-hustler, in which he summoned the spirit of the freedom songs of slaves, French-African patois, calypso music, candomblé, and the lost languages of “talking the dozens.” Mr. Bonair-Agard, well-built and slightly over six feet tall, possessed a commanding stage presence that gave way to a casual rapport with his audience, enhanced by the lilting rhythm of his lightly accented inflections. He sported a goatee and wore loose-fitting cargo pants, bright orange Pumas, a white linen shirt unbuttoned down to his collar-bone to showcase a new tattoo, and a stylish fedora that he took off later to reveal a coiffed mohawk: a “costume,” which seemed both highly fashioned and authentically self-possessed.

After this energetic prelude, he poured himself a glass of rum, and began to tell the story of Saturday night Carnivales during which he and his high school friends used to break down the fence and run away, each praying they wouldn’t be one of the five slowest hooligans who’d get eaten by the police dogs. His performance then alternated between pointed political poems that didn’t flinch from naming the I.M.F. as an instrument of economic oppression and humorous vignettes that exulted in the braggadocio and “cockfight aggression” of young males as they “talked shit” and searched for the next girl to grind with against a wall. During transitions, Bonair-Agard would often dance and sing along to pop songs and calypso tunes or take another sip of rum. His whole performance was infused with a sprezzatura that belies its own artfulness, just as teenagers in Trinidad profess a credo in which the only sin is to look like they are trying too hard.

Though his performance was woven together by personal and family anecdotes, it managed to transcend the egotistical indulgence that usually sinks the confessional genre of both poetry and the one-person theatrical show to tabloid-level bathos. As the title Masquerade hints, Bonair-Agard’s work recognizes the dual process of unmasking personal truths and constructing the truth of personhood through the play—and display—of cultural symbols.
In the Saturday night talk-back, an audience member asked whether Mr. Bonair-Agard, a former national individual SLAM! Poetry champion, considered himself more of a performer or a poet. He answered that he only gets asked that question in America. When he travels to Germany, South Africa, and other places around the globe, the differentiation between the “page” and the “stage” is not as codified or segregated. Hopefully, with more performance-poets such as Mr. Bonair-Agard, the distinction between poetry and performance art will no longer seem such an invidious antithesis in this country, either.