Douglas Kearney//Dangerous Culture

Douglas Kearney

Tai Coleman, Andrea Jenkins, Douglas Kearney, Bao Phi

Saturday 11.6.10

THE LOFT LITERARY CENTER/1011 Washington Ave S # 200
Minneapolis, MN

House lights come down and the audience settles and local artist and the events curator, Bao Phi takes the stage. The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota plays host to the Equilibrium [EQ] Spoken Word Reading Series that is devoted to artists and audiences of color. Recent acclaim comes not without want: The EQ series and Bao Phi recently garnered a 2010 Minnesota Nonprofit Award for Anti Racism Initiative.

The energy in the room is not only positive, upbeat but intelligent. As with many EQ shows Minneapolis’ literati of color can be found and approached easily. They’re everywhere: like hipsters at a farmers market. Come one, come all:  Phi brings in notorious national acts and pairs them with local established and emerging talent. This creates an evening of conversation and congregation. On a bill that includes local artists Tai Coleman and Andrea Jenkins, multi-genre artist and educator Douglas Kearney also take the stage.

Andrea Jenkins

Andrea Jenkins, co-curator of the successful S.A.S.E. Carol Connoly GLBT Reading Series at MPLS’ Intermedia Arts,  is as enigmatic  of a poet as she is  personal. The first time I saw Jenkins, years ago, I remember being struck by how she can assembles images from her past in ways that make me think she remembers better than I ever will. That she knows where she came from better than I’ll ever manage.

Reminding us that the work isn’t over, Tai Coleman’s presence left me thinking about power and access to power. The honor we pay to our friends, family and enemies in their renderings in our work. Coleman speaks in the language of freedom. She is copiously published and with just cause. Coleman and Douglas Kearney were fellows in tandem at Cave Canem, the national “home for Black Poetry”.

Tai Coleman

The quality of the evening continued with Kearney’s prolific performance. The poet can write, the poet can also perform. Phi set the audience up for the following: dangerous culture. “They want our egg rolls but they don’t want our internment camps.” Phi said. And it’s true. Kearney’s work is playful, but it isn’t easy. By no means.

Kearney’s active and enigmatic performances stem directly from his use of active language and engaged form. Leafing through the pages of Kearney’s The Black Automaton we see an artist engaged with his historical past and social present. With animated storytelling and set up Kearney engages his audience as he re-imagines members of the Black Power Movement writing letters as comic cultural lions in correspondence in the series The Voltron Communiquès.

Though there is wordplay, though there is humor, Kearney makes the apocalyptic moment personal. There are moments in the poems I have thoughts of a Black Hero’s Dillema. Or a Black poet’s dilemma. It lies somewhere between activist, social critic, storyteller. It lies somewhere in the inability to see oneself through the constant searching and sorting. It is as much about collective history as it is personal history and it’s seen in the works Baraka, Reed, Baldwin, Knight, Major and many others and here, with Kearney, it is incredibly available however raging.

Douglas Kearney and Bao Phi

Bao Phi took the stage with Kearney on a collaborative piece that mimicked a train with all the impetus of a bullet. Phi and Kearney “meet at the crossroads of a convenience store” of misrepresentations, cultural stereotypes and social myths. They arrive with a full understanding of the fingers that point at them and choose the carving of poems as their chosen method of counterattack. Peg that as a success in my book. This Cadillac of collaboration sometimes inspired laughter from the audience when there should be none. The outlet of humor didn’t dull anything. The knife still cut.

This is what Phi had warned us about: Dangerous Culture.

While Kearney had his moments of danger he also had his strikingly tender and sensitive moments. No one trick pony here. With an incredible command of diction, rhetoric and wordplay he keeps telling you, with a pedagogic intensity that affords audience members big bites of the black experience. Lyricism and musicality in the spoken word can sometimes bring an undue levity to serious subject matter and vice versa. So is not the case with Kearney who is playing with some big dogs in his most recent publication The Black Automaton. To this reviewer, this is some of the most exciting, articulate and poignant work I’ve seen in some time. This is not the last we’ll hear from Kearney.

Review by Lisa Brimmer

Photographs by Simrat Kang


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