Slam poetry and spoken word events are popular enough that most of us would know what to expect when invited to a slam poetry night. I wasn’t as clear, however, of what to expect when friends and I decided to attend the 2nd Annual Jamaica Monologue Slam. While the advertisement explained the format of the evening, it didn’t get to the soul of what would happen.
A monologue slam invites competing thespians to deliver a solo performance piece and be critiqued by a panel of judges. The judges then select finalists to re-present their piece incorporating the judge’s notes. In this second running of the Jamaica Monologue Slam, seven contestants (six women and one man) delivered pieces that ranged from stirring to heart-breaking to heart-warming to comic. A theme of relationship abuse – both intimate partner violence and child abuse – dominated the evening, though comic every-day occurrences and poignant remembrances were also shared.
The Jamaica Monologue Slam is held at Redbones Blues Café, a very popular Kingston venue for good food (their warm spicy cashews are addictive), good drinks, and performance art of all types. Redbones’ specialty is, of course, live jazz and blues, but they also regularly host poetry nights and readings as well as music from other genres. The stage at Redbones is outside, with a fair-sized ‘orchestra pit’ of sorts between the stage and the first seating area – it takes a significant performer to fill all that air.
While people joke about “Island time,” the two-hour delay in beginning the evening was unusual even by Jamaican standards. The crowd was sparser than the actors deserved, but willing and friendly enough once things started. For the sake of both the audience and the performers, I would hope that whatever delayed the start so significantly gets resolved before next year’s installation – it seems particularly unfair to keep the players waiting for so long.
The actors were, generally, a young and passionate lot. The first performance, an impassioned representation of women rising up against intimate partner abuse that incorporated a vivid red scarf, resembled a spoken word piece more than a theatre monologue. The performer’s movements verged on interpretative dance, though the movement of the red scarf was mesmerizing and the message commanding.
It was somewhat unfortunate that the next monologue, from a very slight and innocent-looking young woman, was also on the theme of partner abuse. This performer used her physicality – her youth, her small stature and her gentle face – to great power as a prisoner in a courtroom explaining to the judge exactly why she shot her abuser in the head and why she isn’t sorry. Love, fear, nostalgia, anger, and a touch of insanity poured out of her. There were echoes of “He had it Coming” from the musical Chicago in the content but told with grit and dire reality instead of sizzle and flash.
The next three performances dispelled some of the magic that the first two passionate monologues created, though one of them also provided much welcome comic relief. The pleadings of a woman who is distressed to find her power cut off, only to finally admit it hadn’t been honestly attained in the first place, was culturally exact and movingly entertaining. Her characterization as she moved from talking to a neighbor, to a boyfriend, to a police officer was skillful and fun and added a nice variety.
After five female performances it was also a nice change that the sixth competitor was male. The actor, who is a teacher by day and an Edna Manley School of Art theatre student by night, was charming and offered a poignant and amusing remembrance of his first childhood crush on the prettiest girl at the picnic with polka dot ribbons in her hair. As the judges aptly pointed out to him, he could tone down his belief in his own greatness just a touch. To his credit, he took the feedback with grace and good humor.
The final performance in the first round was from Samantha Ray, a returning entry from the first Jamaica Monologue Slam who had gone on to compete in an international slam and earn a scholarship to a theatre school in New York City. Her monologue from the play Colored Girl – in which the character rejects her man’s worn out apologies – was powerfully delivered although there was a sense in her face that she was holding the audience at bay. The judges picked up on this, while acknowledging that her skill alleviated somewhat her emotional distance.
A considerable proportion of the crowd on hand comprised players and hangers-on from the Toronto-based Lonsdale Smith & Company theatre studio, who are part of the regular monologue slams in Toronto. One of the judges for the evening was Michelle Lonsdale Smith, and her studio is integral to the event. The two additional judges included a Jamaican-born veteran actor, writer, director, theatre teacher who shared her particular insights on the cultural relevance of each piece, and a Los Angeles based director and theatre coach.
A bevy of performers from Lonsdale Smith studio delivered a 10-minute ensemble piece on relationships while the judges conferred. I could have done without that performance – it was self-indulgent and pretentious. The intertwining stories were difficult to follow because many of the performers didn’t project strongly enough to fill the open-air space between the stage and the tables.
The magic of the evening lay in the re-presented pieces of the finalists, comprising the innocent looking murderess, the young man remembering his first love, and the exhausted and unforgiving woman. The actors did an amazing job in incorporating the judges’ notes and providing a fresh and powerful performance. Although the words were the same, each monologue was completely new. While the young woman in the courtroom was the eventual winner, every one of the finalists was an example of what great coaching and willingness to accept feedback can do. There was a restrained power in each of the final performances.
Lonsdale Smith and the other judges are holding a two-day workshop at Redbones this Monday and Tuesday (January 26 & 27) for anyone interested in acting, performance or theatre in general. People are invited to drop by from 11 am – 5 pm each day.