ETA Creative Arts Foundation

One of the great disappointments of my short career as a graduate student in English was discovering that the poets–the creative-writing students who read on Thursday nights at the local bookstore–were encouraged to read their work in as flat a drone as they could maintain without dozing off. The idea, I was told, was that poets who read their work with any flair at all were thought to be trying to hide the flaws in their poetry behind their performances. The result was that these poetry readings were more ordeal than entertainment, attended mostly by students and faculty who hoped to win brownie points from the creative-writing department.

I always thought this antiperformance prejudice was a shame. Not just because it reinforced the commonly held belief that poetry is boring and hard to understand (an attitude that a university writing department, as the keeper of the “mysteries” of creative writing, would have a vested interest in maintaining). But also because locked within the confines of the deliberately chosen words and phrases of some poems is a power that can only be released when they’re performed.

From time to time someone tries to take a dozen or more poems and mold them into a full evening of theater. Sometimes–like last year, in City Lit’s evening of Raymond Carver poetry–this tactic works. Sometimes–as in Jean Howard’s 1988 production Psychopoetica–it doesn’t.

All too rarely does the impulse to bring poetry to the stage work as well as writer/director Vantile Whitfield’s carefully crafted adaptation of Gwendolyn Brooks’s work. Structured as a series of vignettes, Among All This You Stand Like a Fine Brownstone doesn’t so much tell a single complete story as present a series of quick sketches taken from Brooks’s portraits of Chicago’s African American community. Each character is given a chance to strut before the lights and tell us his or her story. Most of the delivery is in monologues, although Whitfield has wisely chosen to toss a few dialogues into the show for variety.

We meet the local dandy, Satin-Legs Smith, who fills his closet with “wonder suits” of “sarcastic green and zebra-striped cobalt”; Johnnie Mae, the party girl who turns all the men’s heads; Way-Out Morgan, an otherwise normal middle-class black man who has been mentally unhinged by the death of his wife; and Lincoln West, a young man who learns to stop feeling ashamed of his dark skin and love himself because he is “the real thing.”

Though nearly every word in the show (according to Whitfield) is taken from Brooks’s poetry, few of her poems are delivered intact. Instead, Whitfield has cobbled his show together from excerpts, a technique that may offend purists but that guarantees the kind of tight, coherently structured show that would never be taken for a slicked-up poetry reading.

Nor would this show be taken for a solemn work of prosaic social realism. All the characters in Whitfield’s show speak, naturally, a kind of poetized speech–Satin-Legs Smith, for example: “Here are hats / Like bright umbrellas; and hysterical ties / Like narrow banners for some gathering war.” This works surprisingly well, thanks in large part to the show’s cast of eight, who speak Brooks’s poetry with a natural, colloquial rightness that reveals at once the beauty of her words and the meaning beneath them. When Mark Townsend speaks Brooks’s words as Satin-Legs Smith, the lines are suddenly dandified, as if Satin-Legs were composing his monologue on the spot. Similarly, when Way-Out Morgan (Kristian Chanin Crawford) tells us that his wife never forgot “to put flowers in vases, / Bizarre prints in the most unusual places” it is as if he, not Gwendolyn Brooks, had written these lines.

According to the program, Vantile Whitfield has been working on this show since 1976, and I believe it. Every element–from the unobtrusive lighting to the jazz that plays between scenes to the simple set, which never competes with the poetry for our attention–seems carefully calculated to make Brooks’s words sing. If only my graduate-student friends could see this show.