Russell Simmons made a mint peddling rap records from a dorm room in the early 80s. But these days the Def Jam label is being used to sell lots besides hip-hop: urban comedy, video games, even clothing. Def Poetry Jam–the onstage extension of a late-night HBO series for slam poets–may be the former Def Jam CEO’s savviest marketing move yet. Simmons and producer Stan Lathan have adjusted the intimate poetry-slam style to a more spacious setting, keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line: cramming butts in seats. The result falls somewhere between the grit and gristle of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York and a hypertheatrical impression of the same. Still, some of the tenderness and humor of a night at the Green Mill does creep into the performances. Beau Sia hilariously deconstructs Asian-American stereotypes in one monologue, and Poetri hijacks the show with an homage to Krispy Kreme. The more politicized stances of some performers do not go down so easily: the closing piece, “I Write America,” spirals into cacophony, and sometimes the political views might be confused with expressions of personal anger. But Def Poetry Jam–which includes eight performers, among them former Chicagoan Mayda Del Valle–does a marvelous job of drawing together distinct yet complementary voices, putting the puzzle of American existence into a little better focus. As Nigerian-born poet Bassey Ikpi says, “Imagination is the bridge between the things you know for sure and the things you need to believe when the world becomes unbearable.” Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1400. Opens Tuesday, January 20, 7:30 PM. Through January 25: Wednesday-Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 5 and 9 PM; Sunday, 3 and 7:30 PM. $15-$60.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carol Rosegg.