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Slam Dunk

Poetry Slammer Al Letson Pairs Up With Theatre Project to Mix Spoken Word, Drama, History, and Hip-Hop in the Premiere of Griot: He Who Brings the Sweet Word

By John Barry | Posted 2/18/2004

No offense to the scribblers, but the spoken-word poets are a lot easier to interview. On the phone from Jacksonville, Fla., Al Letson, 31, is ready with a life story, an artistic philosophy, a little sociological analysis, a sprinkling of self-deprecating modesty, and maybe a little aggressive promotion for his latest work, Griot: He Who Brings the Sweet Word, which makes its premiere at Theatre Project on Feb. 19.

It's difficult to decide what to label Letson, whose résumé includes acting and performance art. While he describes himself as a full-time playwright now, he made his bones in the explosive spoken-word movement of the mid-'90s. But if one chord runs through these various incarnations, it's his aggressively competitive streak.

"I started off in slam poetry," he says. "Five years ago, I won third place in the National Poetry Slam in Providence in 2000. . . . I'm a very competitive person. I love competition. In fact, I love it so much that I didn't like coming in third. I was up first and the microphone stopped working and, you know, I wondered what would have happened if the microphone kept working."

Third place was still pretty good out of a field of several hundred, so the exposure gave a jump-start to Letson, who worked at the time as a flight attendant on a commuter airline in Tennessee.

"Then I started to get involved in ensemble acting--one-person plays using different characters," he says. "I decided that if I could put on one-man plays at spoken-word venues, I'd start the ball rolling for my career. Four or five years ago, [director] Barbara Williams began collaborating with me on the plays. And she kept pushing me along."

Since then, Baltimore has become a home away from home for Letson. Two years ago, Letson and Williams brought his show Essential Personnel to Theatre Project. It was a one-person ensemble piece that included monologues from people whom he describes as "not quite fitting in," including a Gulf War veteran, an ex-Black Panther, a corrupt police officer, among others.

Letson describes his emphasis on marginalized characters as an outgrowth of his own demanding work schedule in the mid-'90s. As he was juggling careers--in constant transit from Tennessee to New York, where he performed spoken word in small cafés--he says he met the people who came to inspire his later work.

"I became interested in the people on the edge, the ones no one talks about," he explains. "When I started working on Essential Personnel, I was working on the airlines. So I'd fly into New York every month or so to work at [spoken-word venue] Nuyorican Café. . . . I'd be taking the train back at 2 or 3 a.m. . . . One night I was riding the trains late at night. This guy came up to me and started trying to talk to me, and he bothered me a little, so I brushed him off. He looked a little like a bum. After he got off, though, I felt embarrassed. I didn't know his story, I'd made judgments based on his dress. I had taken away his humanity. So I realized then that's what I wanted to do as an artist--give people their humanity back. I like to write about what makes most of us uncomfortable, the people who don't fit in in today's society."

Letson describes his characters as "unspoken heroes," based on historical figures and close acquaintances. In Essential Personnel, Letson creates a character based on Geronimo Pratt, a former Black Panther who emerged from prison seven years ago after about 20 years' confinement. But Letson says he also draws the character's fondness for Motown and R&B from his own father, another veteran of the '60s. The composite character ends up having a deeply ambivalent relationship with the younger generation, which seems to him to have lost the "fire in the belly" that drove the early civil-rights movements.

This disconnect seems to drive much of Letson's work. He notes that in his own age group a sense of passive bewilderment seems to have supplanted the rage that consumed militants of the late '60s.

"In Europe they have buildings--here they have no way of remembering what went on before," he says. "My generation has the ability to make change, we just get lost in the way. . . . A lot of the time we're sitting back, letting the world move on."

With Griot, Letson says, he's trying to combat that generational short-term memory. Inspired by the traditions of the griots, or singers/storytellers of West Africa, Letson is using his characters to resurrect different phases and movements in African-American history. Letson describes it as a "mixed bag" of music, poetry, and drama in which the three performers--himself, Larry Knight, and David Pugh--act out scenes from the lives of characters at various points in history. In one scene, for instance, writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright pair off onstage and argue about their roles in the civil-rights movement. In another scene, Letson depicts Paul Robeson, the actor, singer, and activist of the 1940s and '50s who was hounded into becoming a recluse because of his early ties to the Communist Party.

And while Essential Personnel consists of monologues, Letson says Griot is both more dramatic and more musical. Various musical traditions are woven into the narrative, as Letson hopes to emphasize the role of blues, jazz, and hip-hop in carrying on the storytelling tradition.

"Hip-hop is definitely part of the play," he says. "We do that to stress the link between what the Griots of old did and what hip-hoppers are doing today. In the African-American community, oral history and stories have been passed down from generation to generation. And that's what hip-hop does at its best. Hip-hop is a descendant of the spoken word. It's the modern-day blues. Different times and circumstances connect."

Letson acknowledges, meanwhile, that Theatre Project is what enabled him to bring this vision of connectedness to the stage. Anne Cantler Fulwiler, producing director of the Project, says that the theater's staff members were "so impressed with Essential Personnel" that they decided to commission a new work. And while they tried--and failed--to win a grant from National Endowment for the Arts for the piece, Theatre Project offered to stage Letson's work sight unseen, while arranging classes and workshops to supplement the company's income. The commission gives Letson a percentage of box-office receipts, as well as an advance.

Theatre Project has supported several artists as a developmental partner, Fulwiler says, but it's rare for it to commit itself to this extent. And while she admits that the money isn't great, "sometimes the greatest gift you can give artists is the deadline that inspires them to complete a work."

Letson now spends much of his time on school campuses, running workshops and rubbing shoulders with the more conventional poets. Although he claims deep respect for the written word--Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Amiri Baraka are some of his favorite "page poets"--he acknowledges that the respect isn't always mutual. Spoken-word poetry has come under considerable attack for diluting poetry, commercializing it, or turning a fine art into an aggressive medium. How does he respond to that?

"I don't respond," Letson says, adding if more conventional poets want to criticize him, it's their right.

Letson doesn't sound like he wants to engage in an artistic or political debate. The lines between genres blur easily in his work, he admits, but since that night in the train returning from New York his focus has been relentless. "My work is about dealing with people," he says. "For me that's the beauty of it--giving them their humanity back."

Griot runs at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., Feb. 19-29, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Call (410) 752-8558 or visit www.theatreproject.org.

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