Obamas Host Speakers, Musicians for White House Poetry Jam

"I have wanted to do this from day one," the first lady said of the spoken-word evening. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
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By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Perhaps for the first time ever, the White House jammed and slammed last night.

Poets and playwrights, actors and musicians packed the ornate East Room, delivering cool jazz and glorious spoken-word poetry, sprinkling a bit of hip-hop and a bit of the heroic couplet. And through it all, the president and the first lady watched -- and applauded.

"We're here to celebrate the power of words," President Obama said. Words "help us appreciate beauty and also understand pain. They inspire us to action." He introduced the first lady as his poet.

Michelle Obama told the gathering that the event was a way to open up the White House and invite in diverse voices. "I have wanted to do this from day one," Mrs. Obama said. "The notion of standing in this room and hearing some poetry."

Some called the event the first White House poetry jam in history. Technically, it was not a "poetry slam," which is a competition among poets -- a form of contest that began in the 1980s in Obama's home town of Chicago. A slam pits poet against poet as they stand before a crowd that provides instant, not-always-supportive judgment. That, of course, would not befit proper White House decorum.

The spoken-word evening, however, did showcase precisely what the best poetry slammers do: Bring their verse to life so that the poem becomes a performance, recited in a rhythm that is almost sung, allowing the speaker to ride words to the deepest valleys of emotion and then scale verbal heights.

James Earl Jones, in that voice that could make a phone-book reading sound like Shakespeare, performed from the tragedy "Othello," towering over the lectern, raising his arms, casting his eyes on the audience as he evoked Othello the Moor of Venice and his torment. Obama sat at a center table next to his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson. Director Spike Lee watched from a table up front. The room was still.

Two jazz musicians, acoustic bassist Esperanza Spalding and pianist Eric Lewis (a.k.a. ELEW), opened the show with a funky arrangement by Lewis titled "Love Letters." Filling the room with a lovely melody, they played as if the White House were a blues joint. Later, Spalding performed "Tell Him," delivering lush vocals as she plucked her bass.

The jam featured young, rising stars in theater, jazz and spoken-word poetry in addition to established actors and writers. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon stood onstage with his wife, "Bad Mother" essayist Ayelet Waldman. They talked about the power of words.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony-winning creator of the salsa/hip-hop-inspired musical "In the Heights," performed. Poetry slam champion Mayda del Valle, a native of Chicago's South Side, delivered a personal narrative to the cadence of a hip-hop beat.

Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, a young spoken-word poet from Hawaii, asked in an emotional poem: "What happens to the ones forgotten?" Next up was Joshua Brandon Bennett, who -- like Osorio -- has appeared on the HBO series "Brave New Voices." Bennett performed an ode to his elder sister, who is deaf. "Tamara has never listened to hip-hop/never danced to the rhythm of raindrops," Bennett recited.

Spalding and Lewis provided what they called the musical transitions between the spoken-word performances.

Spalding was first invited to the White House in February by Stevie Wonder, when he received the Gershwin Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Library of Congress. "As they were making the lineup for this poetry event, they realized they wanted some people to represent the music," Spalding said in an interview prior to the event. "They called and said, 'Can you come?' I said: 'Don't finish talking. The answer is yes!' "

Desirée Rogers, the White House social secretary, is a huge fan of Lewis, a music industry source said. Rogers saw Lewis perform at HR-57 jazz/blues club on 14th Street NW (the club's name comes from a congressional resolution that designates jazz a "rare and valuable national American treasure"). Rogers saw Lewis again in New York in February at a Donna Karan fashion show, where Lewis played live on the runway. (Lewis can also count Oprah Winfrey among his fans.)

Lewis has received critical praise for his improvisation of jazz, which he calls "rock jazz." But he has also received heated criticism from some camps. He said an invitation to perform at the White House was like a validation for his music.

"I just met the first lady and I gave her a purse, a red clutch," Lewis said in an interview prior to the performance. "She loved it. She said she saw some videos of me where I reached inside the piano and played the strings. She wanted to make sure I do that on [this] performance. It was nice to receive her okay. She told me to rock the house and do my thing on the piano.

"I can't tell you how special it is that Michelle Obama asked me to go inside the piano," said Lewis, who performed "Mr. Brightside." "For her to be that cool and open-minded to request it shows me some people get it, and some people don't.

"The one that got it happens to be the first lady."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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