New Street Poets
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
August 11, 2007
New Street Poets is the rarest of rare shows. A spoken word play written and performed by six different poets who can also act, it addresses a familiar issue with amazingly new voices. The language was so alive that I clung to its every word, and a great deal of it stayed with me after the show was over. This is a play that any theatre or poetry lover should rush to see.
It's an emotional story of gentrification pushing out the artists who made their neighborhood hip in the first place, and in the process effectively destroying the artistic soul of the community. Café Home is a hundred-year-old building and local meeting place that also shelters a lot of down-and-out artists. Ma is the owner and mother to all the inhabitants of this home. As a big developer gets the city to take over the land and tear the building down using the eminent domain law, and turning it into a parking lot for new luxury condominiums, Ma and five poets fight to keep this vital center of their universe intact.
This is no ordinary resistance, because this place is something truly special. It breathes poetry and changes lives. Nina, a lawyer-turned-poet, divulges how "before poetry...my world was a dollhouse of justice, where the gavel had no gravity...now...I am a personal, palpable, plausible poet that must give you pause." For Ma this café is her life and purpose: "These walls, floors, and ceilings are foundations without boundaries. These windows bifocal the soul." To Troy, taken in by Ma when he was a street kid trying to rob her: "This is my religion. This building is my temple, cathedral, mosque, and tabernacle; my synagogue, basilica, church, and chapel." As each poet tells his or her story, the stage comes alive; the presence of so many lives proffers this place reality that makes us care. The "progress," as the developer terms it, is manifested as what it is: Demolition. Destruction. Devastation.
Verse play is not the easiest to pull off, especially one with a realistic style. But New Street Poets melts prose and verse seamlessly into lively action, thanks to the fact that the poets speak their own words and the piece was put together, according to its website, through a "collective and democratic" creative process. Mel Williams directs with fluidity and deftness, making the poetry not just the device but the soul of the play. Two of the poets, LeDerick Horne and Justin Woo, also coordinate and advise on the poetry, and make the words sing. Reginald S. Burch's Troy brought tears to my eyes. Scott Tarazevits's Spot is slick and adorable at the same time. Michelle Seabreeze's Nina commands her words as does a soaring bird its wings. Ma, played by Isis Phoenix, is truly a phenomenon—she is like Mother Earth, no less. By the end of the fight, I wished I were there with them to stand in front of the bulldozer. And I am sure I wasn't the only one.