Before Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Rita Dove or Sonia Sanchez burst on the American landscape, another trailblazing Black woman poet and educator, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), found her voice within the nation’s maelstrom of racism, sexism and economic and social injustice – becoming the first African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Recently, the Strathmore, in celebration of both the legacy of Brooks and the District’s grassroots poetry scene, presented Manual Cinema’s “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks” – a piece written and conceived by an all-Black creative team with original music which first premiered in the poet’s hometown of Chicago in 2017.
The production included a live quartet, intricate paper puppetry and live actors working in shadow which combined to create an unforgettable multi-media experience, undergirded by the words of Brooks whose works often dealt with the personal highpoints and struggles of ordinary people from her own community. The event also featured scholar and poet Kim Roberts who spoke before the show, followed by a poetry reading hosted by Dwayne B of Spit Dat along with local poets Morgan Butler, Brandon Douglas and Marjan Naderi.
Strathmore Artistic Director Joi Brown said she remembers “falling in love with the company” before becoming aware of the Brooks work and relished the thought of bringing the show to the D.C. region.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the content of the piece because the narrations and live music are quite compelling,” she said. “But the most fascinating part is seeing multiple parts working at once with constantly changing images, puppets manipulated to perfection and a project built from start to finish before the eyes of the audience and then projected on a big screen.”
“Unlike a reading of poetry that’s one-dimensional, the company worked with local writers, creators and jazz makers all familiar with the poetry of Brooks and leading voices of Chicago’s artistic community who made sure Gwendolyn Brooks’ words, in all their vibrancy, remained as the foundation and focus.”
When asked about the broadened range of the productions she’s brought to Strathmore since being hired five year ago, Brown said she’s been fortunate to be part of an incredible team.
“I have a talented cabinet of workers and I’ve learned to listen to other art curators and my colleagues, all of whom help us to remain focused on incorporating as many unique voices as possible and presenting productions that bring diversity to the stage,” she said.
SE Native Dwayne B Touts New Generation of D.C. Poets
Highly-celebrated spoken word artist Dwayne B, born and raised in Southeast, describes the District as “somewhere you want to be if you’re serious about and looking for the best in spoken word poetry.”
“During the pre-show event, Kim [Roberts] led a conversation on the works of Brooks, then included the history of how she, along with May Miller and Georgia Douglass Johnson, helped to cultivate a community of poets who have since paved the way for future artists,” he said. “After sharing a few of my own works, I introduced some of today’s generation of voices from the D.C. area – strong, talented and whose skills have been cultivated right here.”
“During the past 20 years, we’ve hosted national poetry slams in the District and our youth have emerged among the country’s best – repeat winners of championships. Spoken word continues to provide an outlet for those who didn’t feel they fit on the academic side of poetry or the hip-hop side of writing poetry. Spoken word is a melting of the two and allows incredible writers to share their thoughts in performance and makes the headier aspects of poetry more digestible for audiences.”
Dwayne B points to today’s Black youth whose numbers of hopeful wordsmiths continue to rise after first being connected to poetry through spoken word – many of whom develop a thirst for more.
“Once they discover the deeper nuances required of the serious writer, they often fall in love with the art of writing,” he said. “Sometimes they move to prose or fiction and some of my peers have become amazing writers, like Jason Reynolds and Liz Acevedo. They started out as poets in their communities, first doing spoken word before realizing that there’s so much you one can do with the art.”