A poetry slam in downtown Chicago. Eight young poets prepare to battle for a chance to perform at the Octagon. Playwright Kristiana Rae Colón’s poetry pulses at the heart of Nadia Latif’s production. It feels like everyone involved is on the same page: Simon Slaters’ masterful soundscape, designer Lorna Richie’s spare set, an arena for the language. Every element has been created to showcase the poetry and as the first slam bursts into life it’s easy to see why: ‘The points aren’t the point, the point is the poetry.’
This is the second collaboration between Latif and Colón, the first production being but i cd only whisper in 2012 and it’s something of a force. Colón’s verse carries the narrative, magnificent and visceral it creates a world of open wounds and starving artists. ‘Dear Documentarian’ in particular showcases this talent. Slick and passionately delivered. These poetry battles are both visually and audibly spectacular. This is clearly a very skilled and well rehearsed ensemble cast. The boys bounce with Montague camaraderie and the girls sway with Capulet poise. The delicate sprinkling of wit throughout keeps the mood just light enough to balance things out. The fire and frenetic energy in the poetry of this piece is the main point here, even if the writing threatens to collapses under the sheer wealth of voices that are shouting to be heard in Colón’s play: political, racial, sexual, spiritual and religious. There’s so much going on, it’s so stuffed with themes and ideas – and it can be quite a cacophony.
It’s also long. With a running time of almost three hours, both halves of the show feel about twenty mins too long. The first half establishes context, characters and conflicts but occasionally the dialogue feels indulgent. It could have made for a more powerful experience if it were tighter.
This does not detract from the potency of the performances in this piece. Harry Jardine as devout teacher Chad and Estella Daniels as ‘the watcher named Pen’ in particular stand out. Jardine’s measured exploration of a man governed by god and powered by paean is refreshing. Daniels’ performance as the charismatic slam host Pen is a thing of both style and substance.
The poems in Octagon throb with the urgent anger of American youth. This play is a whirlwind of a thing, intertwining social commentary and art; Colón is a talented poet and her work showcases that skill, even if the play itself is overlong and occasionally wayward: these points really aren’t the point though, the point is very much the poetry.