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Educational Cultural Complex

4343 Ocean View Boulevard, Mountain View

For seven years, Calvin Manson, artistic director of the Ira Aldridge Repertory, interviewed people unused to tape recorders and probing questions: the homeless, the bullied, the racially profiled. To enter their world he disguised himself as a homeless man. Police stopped him several times and, at one point, almost went to jail.

Manson found that the ruling stereotypes were false. He was also struck continually by the “numbness” of the outside world to the plight of his subjects.

“POETiCAL,” a spoken-word choreo-poem assaults that insensitivity. “If a homeless man falls off an overpass, and there are people around,” it asks, “will they make a sound?”

“Nappy Headed Hoes,” for example, rips into radio-jock Don Imus’ notorious remarks about Rutgers’ women’s basketball team. The poem lambastes Imus and opens up the possible: “step outside the bonds of civilized beauty,” the female speaker urges: “be the woman you want to be…not the bitch of beauty!”

The poem also fits squarely into the oral tradition of “the Spoken Word.” Much more a performance than a mere reading Spoken Word incorporates physical gestures, looks, rhythms, and music. Whatever works to make its subject real and shared with an audience right now, this minute.

As the media have become more and more monolithic, and mainstream attitudes even more packaged, the Spoken Word – and hip hop and slam poetry – has come to the fore, providing commentaries about what you won’t hear on the radio: oppositional news.

Manson's “The Word,” excellently performed by Janice Edwards, is a highlight. An African-American woman tells of her history with the n-word, and the first time she uttered it, fairly late in life. And how, in our allegedly "post-racist" society," she felt.

In “Something Only a Black Woman Can Teach Her Son,” a mother must explain racial profiling; “Stop Lights is for the Enemy” is a man’s mantra to avoid being carjacked (during yellow lights he reaches for the automatic under his seat); “Tamika’s Story,” about a reformed crack addict, is a full length tragedy in maybe 50 lines.

Manson’s poems not only dig deep, with language both poetical and raw, they’re often quite funny, as when a woman says of Smokey Robinson, “he’s so fine, you could sip his bathwater through a straw!”

The overall quality of the poems is so striking, that the weaker ones stand out (and could be cut, since the evening runs a tad long).

The opening night performances were also uneven. Spoken Word means doing a poem, not mere recitations. Some in the cast had trouble releasing themselves through the language.

Janice Edwards has the feel throughout, as does Vimel Sephus (terrific as Virgil Tibbs in Ion Theatre’s In the Heat of the Night). Sephus performs one of the show’s signature poems: “I Read A Man Today.”

During his research, Manson came upon a homeless man, standing against a fence, who asked for spare change. “I turned around,” Manson writes in the program notes, ”and screamed: ‘dude you are asking me for money when you do not carry a sign?’

POETiCAL: Not to be Played on the Radio

Manson assumed that words scribbled on a cardboard sign were part of the deal, the "entertainment."

“Between the time it took for the light to change from red to green,” writes Manson, “he was changing me.”

Playing through August 25.

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