WORDS ON FIRE, Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Arts Exchange. Director-adapter Eric Rosen’s fluid, multitextured dramatic anthology of Chicago poets offers a strong but never sappy tribute to the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Louis Sullivan–whose autobiography sings as if it were verse. Fueled by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman’s score, the nine ensemble members evoke a jazzy gang in Brooks’s “We Real Cool” and Kim Berez’s anguished woman reviling Wicker Park yuppies for their indifference to her cousin’s murder. Cin Salach’s embracing rhapsody, “You Have the Right Not to Remain Silent,” honors subversive scribblers.
Sometimes the poems converse. Carl Sandburg’s ballyhoo of hog-butchering Chicago is undermined by Marc Smith’s slam-bang put-down of a town whose work lacks pride. Conversely, Haki R. Madhubuti’s eloquent salute to Brooks (“distinctive and proud at 77”) is reinforced by Brooks’s bittersweet “Life of Lincoln West.” In this supple 75-minute showcase, Sharif Atkins and Paul Oakley Stovall have fun with Tara Betts’s sultry “Two Brothers on 35th Street,” Glenda Baker tears the pain from Betts’s “Queen of the Blues,” and Sandra Delgado fiercely calls into question the power of poetry in Beatriz Badikian’s “ÀDe Que Sirve?”
Not all the poems fare well. Some are rendered incomprehensible by performance overkill. The complexities of Reggie Gibson’s “The Blooz Man” are drowned out by Stovall’s hard-driving treatment. Equally bothersome in this demographically correct program is the absence of gay-themed works. Worthy poets like Robert Klein Engler and Greg Shapiro abound and need to be heard.