New York

Sapphire

The Kitchen

Occasionally a collaboration turns out so well that one can only marvel at the sum of its parts. Curator Carl Hancock Rux’s invitation to stage director Jaye Austin Williams to realize an evening celebrating the poet Sapphire’s most recent collection, Black Wings & Blind Angels (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), was an act of prescient imagination, given that Austin Williams, in turn, appointed musician-composer Kwame Brandt Pierce, lighting designer Chris Weston, and stage manager Passion. Together they created a poetry reading of startling elegance—not words one usually associates with the form.

Three actors—Keith Adkins, Arthur French, and Connie Winston—moved with the articulation of dancers, their bodies shaping images in the air while their voices propelled Sapphire’s stream of words across the space. That they held pages of text in their hands as they performed had a magical effect on the action; rather than become caught up in the illusionary realism of full-blown character acting, listeners could ruminate on the meaning of Sapphire’s words on their own. But reading from handheld texts was also a matter of expedience. There were only three days to rehearse, perfect the lighting cues, and bring together a jazz quartet comprising Pierce on piano, Maryam Blacksher (viola), Djibril Toure (bass), and Ramsey Jones (drums). Jones was given only one directive by Austin Williams: to create “music as sound effect,” which resulted in percussive riffs that picked up vivid scenes in the text—“man twisting like a big car,” “new kinds of plastic crying sounds,” “speaks like shrapnel in the retina of a child’s eye.” Plaintive and insistent, the unsyncopated rhythms of their jazz idiom were surprisingly literal at times, when words and music matched. But in the end the brief preperformance exchange of the various participants worked to their advantage: It produced an atmospheric work that carried the breathlessness and immediacy of contact improv. There was no time for the contents to settle or to go stale with repetition.

By the time Sapphire stepped into a circle of light—which had the effect of a zoom lens in bringing her face into a tight close-up—the audience had been primed to pay attention to every detail. Her voice was much thinner than those of the trained actors before her, but such fragility only emphasized the poignancy and solitude of the poet’s lot. Alone on stage, words tumbling from thoughts, feelings, desires, incidents, she deftly constructed multiple worlds in the mind’s eye. It was an evening that bodes well for the Kitchen’s new literary season.

RoseLee Goldberg