KPBS AIRDATE: February 11, 2000
If you wanna compete you gotta stay on your feet you gotta tell the tale, you gotta whoop, you gotta wail, you gotta rap, rhyme, rant, jam, Slam. Hot damn.
A couple of years ago, Thomas W. Jones conceived, created and directed “Slam,” the funk musical revue now at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. A slam is an often-aggressive competition between performance poets. Born in the 1980s in Chicago, the lyrical free-for-all took root and spread like kudzu all over the country.
In Jones’ theatricalized contest, there’s no clear winner. Not even Jones. The concept is great, fascinating, maybe even groundbreaking: A hip, modern reframing of the musical genre, told in the street-smart rhythms and rhymes of young inner city dwellers. But after 2 1/2 hours, we feel, well, slammed.
Keep the rhythm. Keep the faith. Keep the music in the words. Take your poetic license and drive your emotional vehicle right over the edge.
Here we are in The Last Word Café a gritty little downtown place in Anytown USA, run by Autumn, the once-jaded, all-knowing Mother Confessor, a boot-strapping survivor who’s hellbent on saving everyone else’s soul. Autumn calls out the thematic slam-starters: Love, for example. Or ‘Once as a child…’ Everyone in the joint takes a turn, tells a story, mostly tales of youthful angst or adult-sized pain, isolation, rejection, resentment, anger. Autumn will listen to anything, anyone; all she demands is gut-level honesty. “Truth is freedom,” she declaims repeatedly.
At one point, she admonishes one of her charges: “Clichés aren’t relevant here,” she says. Would that she’d heed her own warning, and that the rest of the company would comply. Despite all the youthful inventiveness of its hiphop, doo wop, rap and testifyin’, there is nothing new here. No new twists. No startling insights about the inner core of the city, or the heart of these characters. They are themselves clichés, mere caricatures: the raging young black man, the Buppie with the white trophy wife, the anguished Latina, the oversexed, sexually abused temptress, the mixed-up, mixed-blood ingénue, the white gangsta wannabe.
They riff, they slam, they bare their souls, they curse the universe. They gyrate, they swing from posts, they shimmy and shake and taunt each other, physically and vocally. They move constantly, but no one goes anywhere.
The singing, dancing eight-member ensemble is engaging but not outstanding, except for the amazingly agile Jahi Kearse, and Chandra Currelley as Autumn, with her spellbinding, powerhouse voice.
In his two prior visits to the Rep, Atlanta-based director Jones knocked our socks off, with the mind-boggling “Spunk,” and the mournful “Bessie’s Blues.” In both cases, the stories were much more intriguing, the moves less repetitive, the message more heart-wrenching, the meaning less superficial. Jones may be onto something here, bringing young minds and music to the theater. But athletic as the piece may be, it’s no grand slam, and no slam-dunk.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.