History of the Word: The Power of Spoken Word + Saul Williams

[For this blog, we asked some of the young poets and writers of Detroit Summer to express their thoughts on their experience attending the play “History of the Word” wsg Saul Williams on 02.16.08]

History of the Word: featuring Saul Williams

Last Saturday’s “History of the Word” at the Music Hall [downtown Detroit] featured talent old and new, New York and good old Detroit style poetry.

The night kicked off with some of Detroit’s freshest young poets. They dealt with topics from walking the streets of the D as a young person, to mother nature, to family and spirituality. They hailed from different high schools (Cass, DIA, Southfield, to name a few), and local organizations (city wide poets, team hype Detroit summer, etc).

Going along through the night… History of the Word was a play based off of writings and lives of five gifted New York poets’ experiences of high school. The play centers around a child of the Black Nationalist movement who knows more about the Civil Rights history then the teacher does, and pays for it. The supporting characters are a pleasantly plump and self-conscience girl who always compares herself to the well-liked and well sought-after dancer-type with daddy issues. She, in turn, gets her heart broken by the Iraq-bound “joining the army to get my papers” Thai Muslim break-dancer.

All these characters get nicely fleshed out early on with the help of the beat-boxing, break dancing guitarist student and the one-man facility who plays every teacher from the “wants to have a progressive classroom but falls short” History teacher, to the “devil may care” gym teacher. They set the tone for the scenes and elevate every one’s performances.

As for the play, it gracefully delivers a spoken word ride that puts you into a seat in future high. Though it did feel like some of the story arcs were left unresolved by the end making you wonder if you got the abridged version of it.

History of the Word

On to the feature performance of Saul Williams…Before getting into his amazing set, he said, “Those kids back stage had the nerve to tell me, I’m inspiring. I think they’re inspiring!” (referring to all the youth performers from earlier in the night).

He then went into an enthralling performance that makes you remember he’s a slam champion. Easily stepping from behind the mic to get gradually closer to the audience, we could still hear him with ease because A) he has good vocal cords and B) the music hall isn’t that big.

With a mixture of personal antidotes between poems, he explained things like why he was so angry when he was writing a particular poem. It made the whole night much more memorable, even with great poems that you’d feel in your bones. He ended by making the observation that poetry is really popular right now. He want on to say, if you look back through history, at the moments when poetry was thriving, like the Harlem Renaissance or the Beat Movement, it always preceded great transformations in society, He wasn’t just saying that poetry is some kind of indicator species, but rather, poetry and art have the power to expand the “technologies of freedom” in our consciousness that make great social movements possible. It’s exciting to think that right now we are in one of those moments.

— by Jon Blount, Detroit Summer Live Arts Media Project Youth Leader