at Metro, May 21

Big Goddess Pow Wow? Let me get this straight: a bunch of performers, poets, actresses, and musicians who consider themselves goddesses get together for a little public meeting–and then what? Should we take seriously anyone who calls herself a goddess? Well, if we can get past the “look at me” name, the show proves a potent mix of some of Chicago’s brightest talents.

From the very young (precocious poet Jeanette Green) to the legendary (Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks), the evening with one or two exceptions proved a triumphant celebration of the spoken word. The other factor that made the evening so successful was its pacing, the rhythm established by host Cheryl Trykv.

Trykv dubbed the evening “Big Goddess Kowtow.” Trykv is a sort of bad girl, with a face of benign innocence and a delivery that would do Noel Coward proud, a remarkable combination of irresistible charm and frightening potential. She’s like the kid you weren’t supposed to play with in school because she always got you in trouble. It’s easy to see why she’s gained such a following over the years: no other performance artist has a persona so deliciously bitchy and sarcastic. Instead of being a champion and cheerleader of the cause of performance, she’s an elegant antihost, the queen of the caustic put-down. She doesn’t hesitate to express real awe and admiration, as she did when she introduced and thanked Gwendolyn Brooks. She wasn’t so kind to the other goddesses, making scathing if subtle remarks after each performer finished with a shrug, a posture change, or a slight fracturing of the language.

After Joan Dickinson performed a monologue in the nude, for example, Trykv clapped and said, “Naked Joan” as though she were saying “Thank you, Joan” but the word “naked” just happened to emerge. When she read Marcia Wilkie’s introduction, which stated in true artist-generated PR fashion that Wilkie may be at the Public Theater this summer, Trykv stopped and asked, well, if she’s going to be at the Public Theater, why bother doing Big Goddess Pow Wow? After the group Dolly Varden performed an earnest set in which all the lyrics were mushed into an acoustic soup (bad sound production and bad lighting destroyed an otherwise promising performance), Trykv just said, “Straight to the top . . . ” and made a hand gesture upward.

The evening began with actress Miriam Sturm emerging in bike shorts, black stockings, and suede boots, her hair in a bun and violin in hand. She played as Paula Killen entered with a bunch of flowers and began throwing them to the audience as she did a parody of an “ode to spring” school assembly dance. Then, accompanied by Sturm on violin, Killen began a monologue, a piece refreshingly in her own voice about a Mexican vacation she took with her family when she was an awkward preadolescent. It was one of the cleanest, most concise, funniest, best-edited works I’ve heard from Killen, and may mark a turn toward a more naturalistic, less baroque performance style.

Joan Dickinson, resembling a cherubic lawn ornament, delivered her monologue while carrying a huge ball over her head, reciting it in an unemotional, remote tone and a voice slightly tinged with a west-side Chicago drawl. The beauty of the writing and her strange presence combined to create a sense of unease. She was like a neighborhood tough charming you at moments, then delivering something shocking, alternating between poetic and violent language.

The nudity surely got everyone’s attention, yet it also seemed gratuitous–it’s not clear how it enhanced or played off the script. Perhaps Dickinson intended to create a sense of audience discomfort. Or perhaps she didn’t have sufficient faith in her writing and her delivery, and nudity was a last refuge. Or perhaps everything in the performance was intended to be a non sequitur: the writing, the ball over her head, the nudity.

Gwendolyn Brooks read from her book of poetry Children Coming Home. Especially wonderful were two poems, “I Am a Black” and “White Girls Are Peculiar,” which Brooks delivered with her characteristic distinction–each line punctuated, each word painstakingly articulated–in a rich, clear, honeyed voice. The audience was completely in her thrall as she read and as she made small talk between poems. What a brilliant move on the part of the curators, Killen and Lisa Buscani, to invite Brooks. Looking tall and regal, she represented everything to which others merely aspire: wonderful writing, great dignity, and the ineffable quality of a great heart.

There is bound to be another Pow Wow. Let’s hope Killen continues the impulse to include people as distinguished as Brooks, a true goddess. I’ll be there, and I’m sure a lot of others will be too–because there’s a loyal, passionate audience for this show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Susan J. Anderson.