Multi-genre performer Dahlak Brathwaite visits Cedar Rapids for shows, workshops

Dahlak Brathwaite – Spiritrials

CSPS — Thursday through Saturday, Mar. 10-12 at 8 p.m., with Q&A to follow

Dahlak Brathwaite
Dahlak Brathwaite performs ‘Spiritrials’ at CSPS Mar. 10–12. Photo courtesy of CSPS.
There’s an intersection where poetry, theatre and music meet. The distinctions between them blur there. The categories cease to matter. This is performance at its purest, at its truest, at its most historic and its most transcendent of history. Music has always been poetry. Poetry has always been theatre.

The lines are constantly shifting, steadily eroding. In 2004, rapper Baba Brinkman released a rap “translation” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In 2009, local poet and playwright Barbara Lau brought a Greek chorus on stage for a powerful theatre production of her poetry about her daughter, Raising Medusa. More and more often, art exists at the intersection.

Rapper, poet, playwright and educator Dahlak Brathwaite is a bright light in that intersection, and is determined to invite others to join him there. He appeared twice on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. In 2012, he released the album Spiritrials, which he performs as a piece of solo theatre, with music by DJ Dion Decibles.

Brathwaite arrived in Cedar Rapids earlier this week for a series of events, including shows at CSPS next Thursday, Friday and Saturday (tickets are $12–15).

He’ll be joining Voicebox Performance Poetry on Saturday, Mar. 5 for their spring showcase, and joining The Hook for their monthly Pen and Drink series on Mar. 9 at Lion Bridge Brewing Company. Along the way, he’ll be doing workshops with local school and community groups. Brathwaite took time from his whirlwind schedule to speak by phone with Little Village:

Little Village: Spiritrials is obviously a very episodic, theatrical work. What elements of performance do you find most fulfilling? Most challenging?

Dahlak Brathwaite: I find different aspects of each of these mediums … challenging in its own extent. I would say [in terms of] the writing aspect of spoken word poetry: the discipline it takes to be alone, to build up a repertoire … For me, that’s done in solitude. In music … [it’s] trying to find that perfect balance of hitting the emotional core of people.

Is poetry strictly a spoken discipline to you? What relevance does the written word as a physical artifact have, either as an end product or as a part of your creative process?

Everything [I do] is done to be performed. I think as I’m continuing to grow, to understand what I’m doing, I’m starting to see the written word as … an opportunity to remember what I thought. [Although] I’ve been writing since I was six … writing every day … since I was 11 or 12, [I still see] the document as the way to get there.

That said, my next project is compiling all of the literary material from this [Spiritrials] project into sort of a choose-your-own-adventure style experience, in a book format. I’ve never produced art to be read before and I’m excited about that.

What drew you to poetry? Do you write in any other genres?

I was an English major when I went to college. I didn’t even like poetry when I was in high school. [But] as I began to study it more in college, I began to see that the root of all writing is poetry … this ability to be succinct with language, to be clever … You find that in all these other genres. I recently tried my hand at short stories … I try to adapt what I do in rap and spoken word into whatever medium I choose.

Is there a distinction for you, in either process or product, between what you write for a recording like Spiritrials, with its music and guest artists and production value, and what you write for yourself, as a solo spoken word artist?

The music is a little more personal than my spoken word poetry, and the play falls somewhere in the middle. The spoken word is written to be performed, with an audience in mind. When I write, I try to attack social issues, even if it’s from a personal perspective, instead of from my emotional state, like I do with music. [Poetry] is like your own little coded language in a way. It serves the paper to be dense, to be challenging, where for an audience, it might not.

Will your workshops while you’re here focus more on composition or performance?

More on composition. In general, I am engaging and interacting with communities that might not be fully delved into the world of writing. I want to give them the tools and the magic of expressing themselves … [The goal is] getting folks to take authority over their voice and what’s on their mind. Try to focus on getting them to tell their story.

Can you talk a little bit about the intersection of faith and poetry — both personally, for yourself, and in general?

This has a lot to do, I believe, with the show I adapted for kids, this American musical history show [Adapting History, created in collaboration with and commissioned by Montalvo Art Center’s Education Department] … I’m talking about a spirit that has adapted through time from West Africa, from work songs to spirituals to jazz. It’s the symbol of adapting as process: When you have a call-and-response … when you talk about jazz and improvising — you’re listening, you’re adapting. It’s a leap of faith to adapt, to improvise … to believe you’re going to land where you need to be.

Taking a part of a song you like … and seeing what injecting a part of yourself into it brings — It takes a lot of faith. I try to bring that spirit of freestyling, improvising, evolving — it’s a practice that I try to infuse this project with. [Adapting History] is part performance piece, part workshop presentation. There’ll be projections, video — so that it’s an educational experience. I have this idea in my mind of performed education. I think that’s what I’ve started to accomplish. I want to see the kids empowered to adapt for themselves.

Additional events

Saturday, Mar. 5 at 10 a.m. (free)
Adult Workshop at CSPS Hall

Saturday, Mar. 5 at 8 p.m. ($5)
Voicebox showcase at CSPS

Wednesday, Mar. 9 at 7 p.m.
Pen and Drink at Lion Bridge Brewing Co.

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