The Spoken World
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 15, 2007
The Spoken World comes to the National Asian American Theater Festival from the Bay Area (San Francisco/Oakland). It's a program of two works-in-progress by young spoken word artists, presented by The Living Word Project, which is the resident theater company of Youth Speaks, Inc. The first segment of The Spoken World is a solo piece by Michelle "Mush" Lee, a spoken-word poet who adds movement and choreography to her slam-style performance. What's on view here is a 20-minute collage of pieces about women and women's issues. Most of the ground covered is familiar: eating disorders, low self-esteem and poor self-image, sex and sexuality. Some of the material addresses Mush's experience as a first-generation Korean American, but the pieces that deal with her mother feel like Margaret Cho retreads, lacking warmth or any personal quality. Overall, Mush is an engaging and energetic (and new!) performer. To my mind, in her writing she should guard against easy, cheap laughs and probe her own experiences more deeply as she continues to shape this show.
The second, longer section of The Spoken World is hip-hop/spoken-word-style sketch comedy from the collective iLL-Literacy, which consists of Adriel Luis, Dahlak Brathwaite, Nico Cary, and Ruby Veridiano-Ching. Brathwaite and Luis are enormously accomplished, engaging performers (Cary and Veridiano-Ching come across as less assured, and both seemed to be swallowing words at the performance reviewed, making them sometimes difficult to understand). All deliver material that is generally sharp and timely; a piece about the latter-day political activists on the Berkeley campus is particularly pointed, as is a riff on the appropriation of the word "nigger" by young white hip-hop/rap wannabe types. Some of the pieces are a little self-indulgent (and almost all could bear a bit of paring down). One of the final sketches, about the pitfalls of text messaging, has almost no bite whatsoever.
But there's lots of talent here, and smarts; this kind of show is not particularly my cup of tea (nor am I anywhere near the target demographic, in terms of age), and I'd have liked it better without the constant requests for applause and approval (the performers begin almost every segment with a bid for the audience to "make some noise!"). But I have great admiration for these writer/performers, who really are tackling relevant, socially conscious themes and are especially working to break down barriers for people of color. Like their NYC peers in Slanguage, the folks in iLL-Literacy herald a new inclusiveness that's irresistable.