Chicago Slam Works resurrects dead poets in Dead or Alive
Halloween was more than a month ago, but the dead are being resurrected this month at the Raven Theatre. Poets from beyond the grave are pitted against Chicago’s finest living wordsmiths in “Dead or Alive: Battle Royale of Slam Poetry Supremacy for All Eternity.” Produced by Chicago Slam Works, the mock slam is the organization's second offering this season in its new performance space in Edgewater, a theater as musty as the style of verse that poetry slams were invented to challenge. For those who think today’s poets have nothing on the greats, “Dead or Alive” aims to settle once and for all who rules the spoken word.
Actors portray poets Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, Gwendolyn Brooks (a Chicago native), Jonathan Swift and Anne Sexton, and their recitations have a more theatrical feel than their living counterparts (Rebecca Levine as Sexton pantomimes smoking a cigarette; Shannon Matesky does Hughes in period drag). Most successfully embody their characters without commenting on them, letting the work speak for itself. The one exception is Robbie Q. Telfer [ed. note: Telfer has contributed to the TOC Books section as our witty poetry correspondent], whose impersonation of Jonathan Swift, while hilarious, unfairly skewers the 18th-century author and his squeamishness toward the bodily functions of the fairer sex, as expressed in his 1732 poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Telfer, in a white Afro wig, delivers Swift’s lines in a foppish frenzy, Monty Python-style, interspersing his own commentary. “Hoary means old,” he interjects at one point. “Don’t be nasty!" It’s all in good fun, but Swift’s satire is sharp enough to earn laughs on its own merit. The famous climax of the poem—“Oh Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”—might be even funnier were it delivered straight.
The living poets hold their own, and hearing them perform original work is the highlight of the show. Fatimah Asghar’s “On Those Who Kill,” which she wrote after interviewing a war journalist she met in Bosnia, is particularly powerful. Her delivery is understated and chilling, with descriptions of “massacres as fun as fireworks.” Another standout is Emily Rose’s “Cake,” a sensual poem in which baking becomes a metaphor for intimacy.
The actual slam part of “Dead or Alive” is anticlimactic. Three preselected audience members choose a winner after each round of readings, but it all seems a little arbitrary, as the crowd gets no say or insight into the judges’ reasoning (or qualifications, for that matter). Slam is all about the power of the people, so it would make more sense if the audience as a whole determined the victors. But really, the outcome is beside the point. When you’ve got talented writers showcasing their work and a paying audience willing to listen, everyone wins.
Catch Dead or Alive on Wednesday 19.