An audience alternating between rib-cracking laughter and somber intensity; a stage whose props transform it into a homey living room of the Caribbean; the frenzied energy of one man mixing dance, song and verse into a vibrant narrative. These were the ingredients of slam poet Roger Bonair-Agard’s perfect storm performance Masquerade: Calypso and Home this past Friday at the ’62 Center’s Adams Memorial Theater.
With two National Poetry Slam Championships under his belt, Bonair-Agard has made a name for himself in the art community. His poetry has been collected in the Cypher Books publications Tarnish and Masquerade and GULLY, as well as included in Burning Down the House: Selected Nuyorican Poets Cafe National Poetry Slam Champions. He has taught for groups like Urban Word NYC for over a decade, recently received a Vox Ferus writing residency and is regularly commissioned as the poet-in-residence for the inter-disciplinary performance ensemble VisionIntoArt. Bonair-Agard has been able to bring his childhood in Trinidad and Tobago to festivals and universities in the United States, West Indies, Europe and South Africa. But wherever he goes, he said, “I, like water, will always find my source and return to the essence of me,” taking those who listen with him.
Bonair-Agard’s peerless stage presence was extremely compelling. Props included a fedora, which he deliberately donned and removed at times like a fashionable thinking cap, an African drum that he played to accompany various bursts into song and an arrangement of photographs around a stool. Sips from a bottle of spirits punctuated the pieces, a lull before the poet resumed the flurry with his body and words. Once, in the middle of a poem, he made a circuit around the stage while kicking a soccer ball, bringing out an inner child who went to a school for those born less well off and who sometimes ran from police dogs. He would occasionally spring to the top of the same stool where he also sat, looking back to his carefree childhood. Holding up an old family photograph, he questioned how the “sepia” people, his ancestors, could even begin to imagine the kinds of lives their descendents live.
The culminating story, woven in his lines and movements, tells of the circumstances of his formative years. His mother, whose parents gave her away when she was only a few weeks old, raised him alone; her no-nonsense presence, which comes through in a tongue-in-cheek recitation about her “mantra,” hints at an absent father behind the listing of traditional values.
In Bonair-Agard’s culture, dance is a language the body speaks with, and music permeates the entire tradition. As he says, “I lost my virginity to Calypso.” While he swayed in time to his words about the girls he pursued at parties and the dance competition he yearly snuck into with friends who are no longer alive, his melodic voice moved all who listened. Bonair-Agard’s performance shifted rapidly between moods, from the humor when he recalled memorizing a ballad about an alcoholic when he was only three years old (“Grandma was so proud”) to the tragedy of another ballad dedicated to a woman with a bad reputation. He summarized his formative years as a time when he “slipped on a clown’s mask as a suit of armor.” His stylized delivery, however, was less a masquerade than the revelation of a world-wise scholar’s insights.
Bonair-Agard carried those in attendance with his performance to a place across the sea, a place he obviously never fully left. In crafting his story, he painted a beautiful landscape of language where calypso fills the air.