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The Word Begins: A Rush of Images on War, Love, Race, Relationships

Sometimes life comes at you as fast as a battering ram breaking down the door that has shielded your little piggy toes from the big bad wolf and more. On October 7, 2007, the Dresser attended a performance of The Word Begins, a spoken word poetry play written and performed by Steve Connell and Sekou (Tha Misfit) and directed by Robert Egan at Signature Theatre of Arlington, Virginia.
smSteve_Sekou-Word.jpgPhoto by Scott Suchman
Dealing with war, race relations, religion, sexuality, and love, this non-linear drama performed by two actors—one white and one black—un-gated a flood of images for the Dresser.

How so?


For example, the performers weave in and out of various character roles. In one scene, Connell plays God. God, now driving a Greyhound bus, is a rejected author—the Bible isn’t selling so well on the street.

The Dresser’s Recent Life Dramas: Rescued Race Dogs

The Dresser, escaping for a couple of days from her new urban digs which are horrendously noisy given a major renovation project in front of her apartment house involving jackhammers, traveled to Rehoboth Beach, Maryland, where rescued greyhounds were being paraded in the thousands.
Greyhounds.jpgPhoto by Karren L. Alenier
The Dresser, who will now and forever see a Greyhound bus and instantly think about the Rehoboth greyhound convention and the possibility that the bus driver could be God, imagines that the owners of these retired race dogs, which are serenely quiet, need all the support they can get from other more experienced greyhound owners. Why? For starters, these rescue owners participate in a deus ex machina operation that gives them a dog that sees every door as a starting gate and once the barrier opens, the dog races away at 45 miles per hour not knowing, in the world outside a racetrack, that vehicular traffic is something that will kill them.


What kills plays a big role in The Word Begins. The writer-actors are dealing with a non-sequential time line of killing fields: the Nazi Holocaust that exterminated Anne Frank, the current war in Iraq killing and maiming young Americans soldiers and Iraqis of all ages—solders and civilians alike, the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre by the mentally unbalanced young man who came from South Korean to America at age eight, the Martin-Luther-King/John-F-Kennedy assassinations, the Ku Klux Klan lynchings of southern blacks, the anti-gay hate-crime murder of student Matthew Shepard. How killing and danger are framed comes by way of Connell assuming his boyhood identity when he believed in Superman and Santa Claus. “Watch out for the sharks in the carpet,” he warns Sekou.
smSteve_Sekou-1.jpgPhoto by Scott Suchman

What works really well in delivering this blitz of information is the use of nine video screens that are easy to see at one glance from any seat in Signature’s ARK Theatre. Director Robert Egan has enlisted the impressively credentialed Michael Clark as the projection designer. Clark, who has worked with Broadway, Off-Broadway, Washington National Opera, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre, and numerous Signature Theatre shows, knows how to pace and repeat his projections. In fact the other artistic designers— Myung Hee Cho (set and costumes), Chris Lee (lighting), and Adam Phalen (sound)—have all made their contributions using the same measured strategy that supports the performers without overwhelming the performance.

The Dresser’s Recent Life Dramas: Getting Back Your Arm

Currently as part of her ongoing research on the American writer Jane Auer Bowles, the Dresser is reading the apocalyptic novel Journey to the End of Night, written by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. (On a transatlantic ship, Céline discovered the teenage Jane Bowles intently reading his novel just after it was published in 1934.) Like The Word Begins, Journey to the End of Night is an in-your-face exposé that steps on a lot of toes about man’s inhumanity to man related to the subject of war (Journey begins with World War I), love, religion, politics, and race. One line that really sticks in the head of the Dresser is: “In all this solid blackness, which you felt would never give you back your arm, if you stuck it out in front of your face, … was … that the desire to kill was lurking within it, vast and multiform.”

The gloom is thick in Céline’s semi-autobiographic novel, but there is also something giddily comic about how Céline presents it. And yes, Céline is the white medical doctor-author labeled an anti-Semite who also used the N word frequently in Journey to the End of Night. However, the Dresser thinks Céline speaks the language of our teenage Goths and that Journey to the End of Night should be read by anyone showing any inclination for volunteering for military service. The book makes the reader think, while she or he is entertained or affronted. Same for The Word Begins.


Although The Word Begins does not actively campaign against youth joining the military, it lobs rotten eggs at our politicians, equating George Bush to Osama bin Laden, calling both terrorists. In a set of kitchen sink maneuvers that include talk, minstrel, and boxing shows, the poets explore stereotypes that feed sexism and racism. Connell and Sekou explore denigration of women with two obnoxious talk show characters, one called Lick Nasty who sees women’s “boobies” as crystal balls (this is where Nasty sees his future). A Shit-Happens memorial for blacks leads into the question of how do we get rid of anger and hate.

While Céline’s novel ends with a couple of murders among presumed friends (probably the weakest part of his masterpiece), The Word Begins shows a comic optimism and a naïve inclination to fix the world’s problems by copulating to produce a “beige” population. You know, make love not war?
smSekou_race.jpgPhoto by Scott Suchman
While the Dresser sees the logic of this optimism spilling out from the burlesque of the talk show and the minstrel show as well as the serious intellectual speech “What is this monstrosity we have engendered?” delivered by Sekou in a stance and costume invoking Spike Lee, she does not believe that Connell and Sekou’s advice “just fuck” and “we are the world, we are the children” are anything more than a slam ending full of cliché and ambiguity. And by the way, the last word uttered in The Word Begins is “begin” which certainly does invoke procreation.

The Dresser’s Recent Life Dramas: Please Let Them Eat Cake

Because the Dresser is likely to get into a world of trouble with her family, she will run these images by in short scenes.

Scene 1: South Texas near the Mexican border during hurricane season. Jewish aunt goes with Baptist husband to wedding of her blond, blue-eyed Catholic niece to the bride’s brother’s dark-eyed, dark-haired friend who is from a financially well off Mexican American family. After the ceremony, the wedding guests blow bubbles instead of throwing rice so the planet can be saved.
Bubbles.jpgPhoto by Karren L. Alenier

Scene 2: Two years earlier, same aunt attends college graduation of her niece. Others in attendance include niece’s college boyfriend, her father, her brother, and the friend of her brother with eyes only for the girl with the diploma.

Scene 3: Fish fry dinner the night before the wedding, the aunt calls aside the bride and groom to give them a card with a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!” In the card, the aunt asks them to promise each other to wake up each morning and recommit to their union and love each other more than the day before. The groom says, “We are framing this!” The bride looks worried.

Scene 4: The wedding reception is held on a thick carpet of grass populated by thousands of mosquitoes. The food is late and the margarita machine breaks but there is beer. After the dinner, the dance floor is uncovered and it rains hard, but it’s not a hurricane.

Scene 5: The dance floor. While sipping margaritas at last (the beer is all gone), the guests assemble and watch the bride and groom dance barefoot. Others join in for salsa and Macarena. While weeping, the groom’s father tells the wedding party a portentous story about his son asking his father if he was coming back when the father had to leave home on business for thirty days. The aunt’s Italian American Catholic nephews, three brothers from Maryland who have never attended a wedding, come out one by one and blow away the wedding party with break dancing every bit as good as what is seen in the streets of New York. Fade to the guests peacefully eating cake.


So what happens when poets break down the doors that keep one safe from their neighbors who might eat grandma or the little piggies who live in flimsy houses, those doors that protect the rescued greyhounds from getting hit and killed in the city streets and rural highways? Does everyone released into the streets then kill or love the strangers encountered? Or do they let the words begin in an attempt to understand that unfamiliar other? The Dresser does not think Steve Connell and Sekou (Tha Misfit) have given their audience these answers, but what they do with their performance is tap into our personal experiences. For that, the Dresser says bravo.

Here’s a poem that catches the skin of the images used in this essay. The poem called “bubber” is by Brian Gilmore, a performance poet the Dresser heard recently at Grace Episcopal Church in Washington DC’s Georgetown. Gilmore was performing his work with two extraordinary jazz musicians: saxophonist Marshall Keys and bassist Herman Burney.

(for bubber miley)
james miley

playing plumber

unclogging drains

turning his trumpet into

a toilet

his blowing into a bordello

he some low down

dirty mean old mamie smith

hound dog


gut bucket blues shouts,

we was a polite dance band

until bubber got us drunk

with the dismals,

with a groove that gangsters

might like, with some conjuring

like king oliver,

with a message

that moans, groans and 

testifies with a wah wah

wah wah east st. louis


black and tan,

black beauty,

black and white keys on a 

black baby grand behind him

blasting out hot and bothered hop heads

that bloom blue bubbles

and birmingham breakdowns

doing the voom voom

and wobbling all the

way to washington

and if you need a 

creole love call

the best drain man in town

can stomp out your troubles

or make you dance the night away

with just a plunger...

by Brian Gilmore
from jungle nights & soda fountain rags
an excerpt from a book-length poem in tribute to duke ellington
& the duke ellington orchestra

Copyright © 2007 Brian Gilmore


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 10, 2007 9:14 PM.

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