Voicing the pain – poetry saves a life

Lemon Andersen

from The Star Tonight – October 12, 2010 – By Kgomotso Moncho

It’s time for the Urban Voices International Poetry and Theatre festival – and this one boasts poetry with a theatrical edge. But more than that, Urban Voices has remained consistent in bringing performers who challenge one’s preconceptions, push boundaries and broaden one’s horizons.

This year sees the return of two international artists – Lemon Andersen (of Puerto Rican descent from Brooklyn, New York) and Beau Sia (of Asian descent, from Los Angeles) who made a huge impression on South African audiences the last time they were here about four years ago.

Andersen is an original cast member of Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, which won a Tony Award for Best Theatrical Event in 2003.

This time he will present his one-man show, County of Kings, directed by Elise Thoron and produced by filmmaker (and one of his many mentors), Spike Lee.

Just as he left a mark on South Africa, it seems SA also left a significant mark on Andersen and his artistry.

“South Africa is the place I love to travel to. The first time I was there I did not know how my work would be received because I don’t deal with race in my content. I deal with class instead. But the audience embraced my struggle.

“In Joburg I met a guy selling strawberries on the street. He noticed my foreign accent and asked where I was from. When I told him, he said that instead of buying strawberries, I should take a picture with him and show everyone back in the US that South Africans are happy people.

“I used to just rhyme before I came to SA. I have managed to grow as an artist from the impact of that first visit,” he explains.

County of Kings is Andersen’s memoir about living with parents who were heroin addicts and losing them to Aids. When he talks about this, you get a sense he doesn’t want to give himself too much credit because he’s aware that everyone has their own struggle and their own story.

But he gets passionate about the characters that make up the show and the nuances they bring with them. He acknowledges that poetry saved his life and the education he got from it refined and healed him. His work has been injected with dramatic spunk and musicality that stems from the rhythm of his words.

“I play different characters I grew up with like my mom, Millie, a girl called Lillie, my grandmother and others. They come through in poetic verses that capture their spirit in little but major traits found in the language. My mom spoke what may be called Spanglish and Lillie repeats the word ‘like’ in her speech, so her delivery would be a prose dense with similes for instance.

“With all that I’ve been through, I haven’t lost my sense of humour. I have a sarcasm about life and you get that in the content. But I don’t want a poetry crowd. I’m a writer and an actor and I love the challenge of presenting my poetry to a crowd that is not necessarily in favour of the spoken word. It takes a lot of learning to transcend to that audience and the learning never stops,” he says.

What he does may be likened to hip-hop theatre, but although hip hop is his culture, he is not a rapper. He is a theatre poet.

Beau Sia is also an original cast member of Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam and a winner of a number of Slam competitions. He features in the film, Slam Nation.

His presentations are somewhat animated and you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s the loudest person on the planet. But his work comes from the experience of someone claiming their ethnic identity in an environment that suggested assimilation to fit in.

He’s Asian American, his craft challenges the views some may have about Asian people, and he’s fully aware of this.

“As I get older I do this with a certain responsibility and for reasons greater than myself and it’s not about improving my own glory,” he says.

The international bill also features Patricia Smith, an established author, performer and academic from New York.

The local troupe includes the infectious Natalia Molebatsi, who entices with her brand of poetry that experiments with jazz and dub. She recently released her first collection of poems, Sardo Dance and she has been included in other anthologies such as Peo Tsa Rona which was translated into Italian. She edited We Are? in 2008 and she’s currently working on her second collection, Dog Souljah.

There’s also Lisa Combrinck, who’s probably better known |as a spokeswoman for the Department of Arts and Culture, but she’s a writer whose work has been widely published.

Joburg and Cape Town are set for their annual dose of Urban Voices. The festival is on from October 16 to 28 between the two cities. Tickets cost R150 at Computicket or at the door. See schedule below.

Schedule of Performances for County of Kings:

Joburg: Sat Oct 16 at 3pm, Oct 21 and 22 at 8pm – Market Theatre Lab, 3 President Street

Cape Town: Oct 28 at 11am and 8pm – Baxter Theatre

Poetry Festival:

Joburg: Oct 23 at the Bassline, Newtown at 8pm

Cape Town: Oct 27 at the Baxter Theatre, Rondebosch at 8pm

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