It's 8 on a Friday night at the Memorial Union. On stage in the Rathskeller, a skinny-jeaned guitar band sprays a mist of minor chords and mopey pop over a room full of students busy drinking a hole into the end of the school week.
One floor above, in the main lounge of the Union, another scene takes shape. Only a flight up, it's another world.
This is where 20-year-old Korim Sterling sits on a table in front of a grand piano and signs people up for the poetry open mike known as Just Bust. Here students sip from tall paper cups of coffee and jostle for empty seats while a DJ works his table. Sterling smiles and looks out over the scene that in January brought him to Madison from Austin, Texas. It's more than a scene, really, according to Sterling. It's a blazing new theater movement with the UW's spoken-word troupe First Wave at its fiery center.
"First Wave brought me up here," he says, his dark eyes greeting regulars and newcomers anxious for a spot in the lineup. Thing is, there are just a handful of First Wavers in the crowd tonight. One First Wave team is performing in Atlanta at a National Student Leadership Conference. Another group is in Boston competing at the National Collegiate Slam.
At home or on the road, First Wave has put Madison on the international hip-hop theater map. "This is the place for me," Sterling says before moving to the mike to open the show. "Being a young poet, I need to be a part of these brave new voices."
The voices on the Just Bust mike are brave indeed. A heavyset young woman celebrates her beauty in a poem about why men are lucky to set eyes on her. A West High student busts a piece on his unending romantic rejections called "Cherries, Blueberries, Apples and Lies." Audience members lean into every verse, every rhyme, every nuance and joke. The Union's Main Lounge crackles like an evangelical tent show.
Sterling says the fact that First Wave is affiliated with a university is what makes it so important. "It's mind-blowing. The things my generation has done - in art, music, word, hip-hop; the advances we've made. And now credit can be given to an academic setting. The UW became convinced that these are legitimate forms of art."
Athletics for the arts
The man who did the convincing is Willie Ney. Ney, together with Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell, created the artistic scholarship program used to recruit talented young artists to UW stages the way sports scholarships bring athletes to the playing fields. Competitive spoken word, like what happens at the Collegiate Slam, is just one facet of hip-hop theater. But it's a symbol of how closely First Wave membership and commitment resemble Division I athletics.
One part head coach, one part Brian Epstein, Ney is the executive director of First Wave. He's an intense, large man who oversees his poets with the firmness of a single father. "We got pizza tonight?" a student asks him as soon as he steps off the elevator at Lathrop Hall for a recent rehearsal. "Easy. Easy," Ney says. "Food later. Work now."
"We are athletics for the arts," Ney says while student poets unfurl themselves onto the floor of the Lathrop recital space. "Members can't go on the road with the team unless they have a 3.0 grade minimum." Travel is a huge incentive, he adds. Like their fellow students who play sports, "a lot of these kids come from some of the same challenged high schools as the athletes." This year there are 45 First Wave members.
One of the group's most versatile performers and accomplished teachers is Danez Smith, a First Wave Scholar from St. Paul. Upon our first meeting, in the lobby of the stuffy Lowell Hall building on campus, I asked him to share some of his verse with me. He didn't hesitate. The words flowed like a river of mercury.
"We are consumers of chaos, a need for shiny things that never left us dirtier."
The English-education major graduated from St. Paul Central High School, where he was drawn to rap and hip-hop and eventually the technical side of stage production. All three come together in his work for First Wave. "I started considering myself an artist when I was 15," he said. "That's when somebody told me I could perform my own words instead of somebody else's. That was empowering."
Smith grew up without a father, but he dismisses stereotypical notions of spoken word that define the genre exclusively as the poetry of pain, need and suffering. "I write from happiness, too. I write some of the happiest moments of my life, too. I like the audience to laugh as much as to cry."
Camea Osborn, a junior from Indianapolis, takes a different approach to her work. "I have the hardest time writing comedy," she says. Yet the piece Osborn shares at Lowell Hall is funny and acerbic. It's a long riff on civil rights - or the lack of them - presented in the character of a traveling saleswoman.
The difference between Osborn and Smith's approach to poetry reveals, if only in a modest way, how varied the practice of spoken word can be. Smith is driven by the act of performing his own words. Osborn says her best work comes from others, from "people who can't speak, people whose stories never get told. A lot of my research is to access those stories."
Osborn's preparation gives meaning to the words First Wave Scholar. She researches her material like a historian. "I write letters. I call people's houses. I figure out what those stories are and then I try to embody what they told me."
An ocean away
Osborn and Smith gather at Lowell Hall on a cold March morning to consult with someone who is in charge of what will be First Wave's next very big deal. Shortly after Ney, Osborne, Smith and I sit down, in breezes Adam McGuigan, director of the Contacting the World theater project, based in Manchester, England.
Contacting the World is a biennial festival and collaborative theater effort produced by Contact Theater in Manchester. Contact engages with emerging young artists around the world and then, every two years, chooses 12 companies to participate in the performance festival. The 12 companies are paired, creating six cohorts that will work together to come up with a show between now and the fall festival in Manchester.
First Wave was the only U.S. company to be selected for the 2010 Festival. Other parts of the world represented include India, Tehran, South Africa, Jamaica and Denmark. First Wave is teamed with a young group of Swiss artists, the Junges Theater in Basel.
While the guts of the seven-month collaboration will happen online, Smith flies to Basel next week to make First Wave's initial contact with Junges. Well, to clarify, that would be the initial physical contact. At Lowell Hall McGuigan has arranged the first cyber encounter between Junges and First Wave via Skype.
Once the connection is made and the Swiss students appear onscreen, Smith, who generally comes across as a serious artist, sophisticated and fixed, dissolves into an excited, silly school kid. He teases the Swiss students about how their English is better than his. Then he asks them to show him one of their pieces. They oblige. None of us understand the words, but the tempo, the rawness of heart and meaning, comes punching through.
And so it will continue, a group of blond young adults from Switzerland and a group of predominantly black and Latino students at a Midwestern American university, pressed together by poetry and an opening night deadline.
Having witnessed a glimpse of the organic tension that happens in a First Wave rehearsal, the small battles of will among talented artists - and this is in the same room - I wonder aloud to Smith how things can happen between companies separated by an ocean and vastly different life experiences. He's realistic about it.
"Any collaborative process, whether you're talking about collaborating with somebody who's a block away from you or an ocean away from you, it's going to be difficult. But from that difficulty comes true moments of genius, I think."
Without a net
Smith displayed some of his own genius this month during the explosively rich but curiously undermarketed Line Breaks Festival on campus. The festival brought some of the biggest names in the hip-hop theater movement to town. Most shows during the week-plus event included sets by First Wave poets. One Man/One Woman featured amazing works and works-in-progress by Osborn, Jessica Diaz-Hurtado and Smith.
Good theater is often defined by words of violence, i.e. an artist "killing" an audience. Using this vernacular it's fair to say Smith is an absolute character assassin. His lengthy, exhausting, exhilarating piece "The Problem with Sundays" pitted seven characters against the subjects of religion, love and homosexuality. Based on the First Wave performances this night, the Swiss students had better buckle up.
Meanwhile, back at the Union and Just Bust, a first-timer takes the mike. He apologizes for his performance virginity. He then astonishes the crowd. His piece is called "Ginger Ail." He finishes to loud applause. Next a brother-and-sister act, up from Milwaukee, throw dance moves. Korim Sterling returns to the mike. He has an announcement. First Wave has won the National Collegiate Slam in Boston. The room flashes like lightning.
"This is real," Sterling tells me, pointing to the attention First Wave has attracted. "We're bouncing it off reality instead of off the wall."
Risk, the most exciting of all theatrical tools, is pervasive in spoken word. In a world swimming with sampled, safe, referential pop culture, the form is nothing if not a flying-without-a-net endeavor.