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Al Letson Speaks for the Unheard Masses in Essential Personnel

Beat Goes On: Performance poet Al Letson taps out his monologues with "the cadence of a generation of those who got lost between."

By John Barry | Posted 11/20/2002

Essential Personnel

Al Letson

Al Letson opens his performance of Essential Personnel by telling us that "we are the beat." That sounds like a throwaway phrase. We don't know who "we" is, and we don't know what "the beat" is. Then there are obligatory references to jazz musicians and beat poets: Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane. Allen Ginsberg. Jack Kerouac. The rest of the opening monologue flows by so quickly that you have to grab for pearls while Letson gets his groove. But be patient. A few phrases drop into your lap, to be used for future reference. One in particular stands out: "The DJ transforms into Moses." At first, that may sound a bit over the top. But by extension, Letson's fictional DJ, transmitting over radio station WTRU, is leading us to the promised land.

Starting the series of one-man sketches that makes up Essential Personnel, Letson's first character, interestingly enough, never gets to where he's going. He's a slave, heading over the Atlantic from Africa. "I am lost over these big waters," he says, "speaking in different tongues--words which have no meaning but translate as soul." And then he dives overboard, to his death; "I am free," he says. He turns out to be the only character in the performance who can actually say that.

The rest of Essential Personnel is populated by those who found their way to the promised land, for better or for worse. This is where Letson the spoken-word performer hits his stride. He's searching for a voice, not imposing it. The sketches don't fit neatly together, but Letson seems to have an idea of what he's looking for: "the cadence of a generation of those who got lost between . . . who are less than what we hoped, with more potential than we dreamed."

One of Letson's most interesting characters is a veteran of the Black Power movement of the late '60s, who looks at the new generation with thinly veiled contempt. "I was around in the summer of '69," he says. "We were the original dream team." Now, however, he's in solitary confinement, imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit. And he accuses those who came after him of breaking the faith and losing sight of the dream.

Bobby, the young Gulf War veteran, couldn't agree more. He is sitting in his chair watching the Super Bowl, when, at halftime, Ray Charles sings "America the Beautiful." Then he breaks down. As he puts it, he's not the man he used to be. He joined the Army to get out of his neighborhood, and now he's left suffering from Gulf War syndrome. He doesn't have any idea who to get mad at. He's spent his life contending with crack dealers, Iraqis, the military, and himself. And in the end he's more of an outsider than he was to begin with. "America the beautiful," he laments. "I'm good enough to be her soldier, but I'll never be her son."

That's the common thread in Letson's fascinating, and often funny, performance. His characters are more concerned with finding their niche than fighting the system. And in the process, they're being turned into their own worst enemy. Letson's character Carlos Sanchez, for instance, is a Hispanic cop who's expected to rough up his own people. Billy Neuman works for the Texas Department of Crim-inal Justice, prparing prisoners for their executions. If Letson's looking for a voice, it belongs to people who find themselves in a country that needs them but doesn't really want them. They aren't the "dream team," and they're not fighting the old fight; but, as Letson says, they have more potential than ever. They are the beat.

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