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February 25, 2016

With Great Collective Comes a Second Showcase

I walked into Logan Café last Wednesday evening with a dollar bill and the beginnings of a poem. Having chosen to forego the three-dollar admission for the less expensive improvised haiku-and-dollar coupling, I was greeted warmly by students sitting behind a table covered in red, tinfoil-wrapped chocolates. In response, I stumbled through 17 syllables, handed over my tattered bill, and took my seat amid a sea of chatter. Despite the biting winds of winter quarter, eager listeners slowly filled the dimly-lit chairs, willing to brave the cold in the name of the Underground Collective.

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The evening began with Vincente Perez, a self-deprecating yet dignified emcee, when he stepped behind the mic to deliver a poem of his own. In keeping with the evening’s theme of alter egos, Perez narrated his experience as a person of mixed race. His cadence flowed effortlessly between conversation and slam as he delineated the complexity of his identity. At the climax, he asserted his own empowerment over the racially exclusive questionnaires, cleverly juxtaposing “check boxes” with “checkmate.”

After a few more words from Perez about the safe space showcase provision, Act I began with Ben Glover’s heavily charged rhymes. For a piece Glover admits he wrote during a particularly boring Sosc class, the rhymes were both heavily charged “Momma call me jump-man ’cause she knows I’m up to something”) and self-aware (“Burnt lips, charred tongue is my mouth aesthetic”).

Bryan Waterhouse followed Glover’s performance with a subject perhaps lighter but no less intense. In “Superhero Love Poem,” Waterhouse earnestly explored the fixtures of love, illustrating the longing to protect, to understand, and to heal—all of this chorused, of course, by the palpable swoons of the audience.

Daniele Becker and Lucas Mathieu took the stage next to allow for a comedic break in their commentary on “useless superpowers,” before Becker and Waterhouse approached the microphones in tandem. Together, they talked about the seriousness of alcoholism in the context of a drinking game, bringing addiction and its impact under the lens of collegiate habits.

In Act II, Hex Bean powerfully examined the intricacies of multiple personality disorder. “Love Notes to my Alter Egos” provided haunting insight into the alternate modes of personhood which grip them during episodes.

In a glaringly ironic and powerfully charged nine-step guide to writing the next great American love novel, Natalie Richardson made a powerful statement about the portrayal of interracial relationships. Perhaps the most politically saturated performance of the evening thus far, she wrote about the dominance of history, crooning: “Always write the female protagonist to be brown-skinned, her face like a frontier, skin like stolen soil; what else is a brown girl if not what she represents?” to a concert of snaps that fade to intermission.

Perez approached the mic, allowing the audience to laugh as he lowered the microphone stand to his own height. After an intermission-turned-dance-party, Act III opened with Payal Kumar, whose “Open Letter to the Real Harvey Dent” eerily addressed a history of persisting wealth disparities in Chicago. Threading the phrase “coin flip, trigger click” throughout her poem, she captured the tragedy of the accompanying violence.

In the final act, Maddie Anderson, Moore, Kumar, and Richardson approached the microphones as Becker and Waterhouse sat off to the side. Mimicking the proceedings of a courtroom, “Villainized Women vs. The State” was a delightfully satisfying ode to feminism. As the four women, each portraying different fictional female villains, testified to simply wanting more, Becker and Waterhouse criticized, meeting each “if I were a man” with a disruptive “Objection!”

Soon after, Anderson performed the final solo piece of the night, detailing the disturbing sexualization of young heroes in a mock conversation between Michael Jackson and his father. “If you cost me my hits, you know who gets hit,” the father coerced. But Anderson gave young Michael a chance to retaliate, offering the victim a voice that can speak innocently of true tenants of fatherhood.

After “Les Affaires de la Ville,” performed in French by Mathieu and translated through Moore’s elegant dance, the evening closed with “Power Play,” a group piece bringing Woods, Moore, Bean, and Anderson to the stage for a one last time. Preceded by trigger warnings of abuse, pedophilia, and incest, the collaboration was performed as if it were read from a script, but was prefaced by a statement from Bean: “This is not a movie.” The poem was heavy, speaking to sexual violence committed by older men in positions of power.

Perez, however, brought the audience back to a brighter, more comforting place in a closing poem about the challenges and rewards of fatherhood, and his commitment to experiencing them both with his own children. He exited the stage, and a Drake song began to play, inviting performers to dance up to the stage and take a bow, applause ricocheting off the dim, hanging light fixtures above them.

Though it’s incredibly difficult to thread so many perspectives into a single poetic showcase, particularly when so many of them are emotionally investing, the Underground Collective made it look easy. I came into the showcase with just the bones of a poem, but when the doors closed behind me, I felt the weight of all the light and dark things of what seemed like all the world. In two hours of vulnerability, performers shared their beautifully crafted stories. They spoke about historic racism, sexual violence, and the cruelty of addiction. But they also spoke about love, solidarity, and conviction as tools against such oppression. In this, the superpower-tailored theme was both fitting and inspiring, providing a true testament to the complexities and lasting impact of vocal art.

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