There is little doubt that Martin Luther King was one of the greatest orators of his or any generation. As we celebrate his legacy this January, it was fitting that the power of words were on display at the August Wilson Center this past Friday for their Poetry Unplugged event.
The atmosphere was club-like: DJs, dim lights, and drinks all contributed to an upbeat mood; however, the reality of what was being celebrated was never in the background. Projections of Dr. King and August Wilson played on the wall behind the stage before the poetry performances began. Host Mahogany L. Browne (herself a phenomenal poet) took the mic and kept everyone hyped, though often with jabs most of the sold-out crowd might not normally laugh at (“Is everybody ready for some poetry, say ‘Yeah!’ Com’on, I can’t hear you: cheer like I just said all financial aid loans have been forgiven!”)
That sort of laughter in the face of an uncertain future held strong for the entirety of Poetry Unplugged. Poets from the across the country performed, each of them tapped into the American subconscious; sometimes reading with fear, sometimes with hope—but always with beauty.
Cuban-born Gabriela Garcia Medina read a poem about wishing to be the world’s greatest magician, performing nearly unimaginable feats: “I will make homophobic men spoon with their dads…I will make Donald Trump undocumented.”
Paul Tran, editor for The Offing magazine, read a powerful poem about his mother: “White people bring bring my mother dirty laundry…White people have a history of dirty laundry.”
Prentice Powell, coming in from Oakland, California just for the event, recited a poem from the point-of-view of The System. Robotically he skewered both pop and media culture for manipulating the Black population.
Perhaps the most personal poem of the night came from Jennifer Falu, who stood tall and slightly leaned forward—like a great statue—read a piece about losing a child with steely, sotic lines like, “The Lord taketh away / The Court taketh away…I am the kind of woman who hides behind a cross…I am the kind of woman who says, ‘Don’t ask me for shit’…But I would give up almost anything if you need it.”
No matter how heavy the material at Poetry Unplugged became, host Brown was always able to maneuver the audience back into remembering how joyous it was experience the power of these words at all when the world was becoming so divided.
At one point she even got the poets up on stage to dance The Wobble, earlier telling the crowd, “I need you to dance for the people in Palestine, in Detroit, in Florida and Brooklyn!”
On Friday night, at the August Wilson Center, while celebrating Martin Luther King Day through the transcendence of poetry, they did dance.