Breaking down barriers with ARTiculation

“Freedom can’t fight for itself,” was both the opening line and a central theme of ARTiculation’s show last Thursday in Goodrich Hall. A Boston-based group, the five poets of ARTiculation combined slam poetry with theater to perform scenes about subjects ranging from racism to online dating.

Unfortunately, while ARTiculation dramatically declared its determination to fight with words, their attacks largely lacked unique specificity, acerbity and impact. The idea of poetry, and writing in general, as a weapon against injustice and oppression is a noble cause I wholeheartedly believe in, but also an image overused to the point of cliché. The power of words to slice through the bondage of inequality, whether instituted by law or socially established by stereotypes, comes from their ability to reveal underlying issues, as well as propose solutions from a new angle.

The details the poets included, though somewhat humorous, were often overused. Several scenes incorporated harsh but repetitive critiques against white Americans’ selfishness and ignorance. For example, the poets claimed that incidents such as the swine flu scare, the gas-guzzling SUV obsession and the flawed but formerly widespread association between gays and HIV/AIDS “… gave proof to the whites that their power is still there.” Though I agree that America continues to propagate severe inequality, and these examples do demonstrate that point, they are also clichéd and outdated. ARTiculation could improve its performance of this scene either by choosing more original details or by interweaving its protests into poetry more creatively.

They later redeemed themselves, however, as originality emerged more fully in a later piece. The scene consisted of poets reading letters to bruised and troubled places with which America is involved: “Dear Iraq … Dear Afghanistan … Dear Israel.” In this piece, the poets effectively packed multiple issues into single lines: “Dear New Orleans, I tried to swim the letter to you but the water is still too polluted, so I just dropped an air package,” one announced, raising questions of environmental negligence, political agendas surrounding humanitarianism, lack of attention at the ground site and the vast inconsistencies in aid efforts within our nation. Another poet delivered “Dear Kabul, I don’t want to change who you are; I just think your infrastructure is lacking.” The grave irony of its words highlights the chasm between American attitudes towards themselves and towards people from unfamiliar cultures, while underscoring how political rhetoric attempts to diminish and conceal the dissonance between attitudes at home and our actions abroad.

To merge theater and poetry, ARTiculation structured its show with established scenes rather than improvised readings, incorporated sound effects such as recess bells and the nightly news jingle, and emphasized clear enunciation over dramatic vocalization. For example, Michael Cognata, speaking in a painfully deliberate manner, asked the audience, “What good is saying something if no one can understand it?” Occasionally, performer Shaw Pong Liu would play the violin with elegance and passion, alternating between serving as a backdrop for spoken words and taking center stage. Several times the poets sang, once coming down from the stage to encourage the audience to sing along to the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Though audience members did reluctantly comply with this request, they never gave the ARTiculation poets an overwhelming amount of energy. At the beginning of the show, the poets asked the audience for an enthusiastic greeting, received something tepid at best, asked again, and received a response only a few decibels higher. Throughout the show, similar encounters occurred, though audience members did laugh raucously at a few points. I wasn’t sure whether this imbalance in energies between exhilarated poets and fairly lethargic students was due to the poets’ inability to captivate the audience or to the typically bashful response that I’ve witnessed students here give at several other slam poetry performances. Either way, the discrepancy created a clearly uneven atmosphere that put a damper on ARTiculation’s performance.

The other slam poets I’ve seen here and at other venues have generally stuck to traditional slam poetry, as the fusion of poetry and theater is an unusual one. Lenelle Moise, who performed for both Claiming Williams days, was an exception, with her singing and use of background sounds. However, ARTiculation incorporated theatrical elements to a greater extent than she had. For the most part, this mixing of genres and mediums worked well. Once in a while, though, I felt that the emphasis on theatrics diminished the rawness that lies at the heart of slam poetry. The multimedia approach worked best in the humorous scenes – perhaps because the funny pieces had less ambitious goals than the scenes explicitly focused on injustice, the poets felt freer to creatively express themselves without needing to fulfill a predetermined objective.

In one of the funniest and best-crafted scenes, the male poets acted out stereotypes of prototypical men. “I am a man and I am going to yell really loud!” one poet shouted. “I’m wearing Passion Body Spray. This smell is clearly going to make random women touch me inappropriately.” In another scene, which poked fun at the tribulations of infatuation in online relationships, came a hilariously theatrical delivery of the line, “I can’t sleep! (… a lot). I can’t eat! (… vegetables). I can see you’re online on my buddy list!” It was during lines like these, when the performers used their talents as poets and actors to illuminate simple everyday occurrences, that ARTiculation shined.

The event, organized by Lauren Miller ’12 and Newton Davis ’12, was funded by College Council.