by Byron Woods
Black Poetry Theater performs "Letters to My Child" Sunday, Mar. 13 at 3 and 6 p.m. at Common Ground Theater.
I grew up in urban upstate New York. My mom was 13 when she had me. I was in an out of foster care. My siblings were tossed around to various family members. It was pretty much a fast-paced environment.
I was always that child who had a journal in my back pocket—and vocals. I was the skinny little girl who could sing her troubles away. I would think of an escape that would be so lucky, and then I'd act that out. Not in a harmful way: I expressed it in an artistic way.
When I was entering junior high school, I fell in love with theater, because there was a way for me to use my voice to hide behind all of the things I was facing.
There was this incredible boy in junior high school by the name of Saul Williams. He's a poet, and he was my very first boyfriend. Our poetry started out as love letters.
I always was the girl who sung, so I had the chance to sing the anthem at all the high school games.
He was the poet/rapper kid who was very quiet and very insecure about urban area.
He was the preacher's kid. I was the harlot woman’s child.
Can you imagine our performances? The magnitude of that? These two worlds we couldn’t really convey, so we had to use our pens, our voices and our actions. Instead of getting involved in the wrong kind of things, people and circumstances, we had outlets for what we saw and felt, for our emotions.
We joined the theater group at our junior high, and got together along with various plays.
Then my family moved to New York. My adopted dad wound up in the music business. How lucky was that?
I went from theater to music, always was my first love. I was in a group called "Petit," which consisted of three other girls. It was kind of like Menudo (laughs). At 15, I did a solo project as "Kemmy," and was pushed into another female trio called "She."
As I came of age I started writing more, playing my guitar more, being more in tune with my environment and aware of my comings and goings and the people I attracted. I started becoming more spiritually focused.
I had to do it because of the people I left behind, including my mother and my siblings.
If anyone could make it out of the ghetto, it had to be with a purpose. My mission was to do that.
I moved down to North Carolina in 2003. In 2006, I met an artist named Cami Brown, and Joseph Churchwell (Church da Poet), and we started a spoken word and music group trio called "The Experience." We were doing poetry shows across North Carolina, and ended up doing a show at WCU opening for Saul Williams.
We did this poem called "Center Stage." We asked the audience to close their eyes to feel the connection with the words.
And from that piece, he said, “This needs to be in a theater. It needs to be shared."
We need to incorporate more people like us who have stories to tell. That want to help, for healing space, intuitive of communities—in that poets, musicians and artists are a community in themselves.
And if we all had an outlet, how lucky would that be?
So we formed Black Poetry Theater in 2006.
I get to embark in poetry and soul. I get to bring my guitar and my vocals and my poetry. And that’s where the performance part is so virtuous for me. It gives me a leeway to usher storms that I can’t possibly handle on my own.
I know I have a family and community that will say, “All right, we did not rehearse this, but we are so linked to one another that our words can be like a domino effect, not just for the people that we work with, but the audience we want to pull in with our artistry.”
We have dancers from Southern High School and some phenomenal young people incorporating movement into our work. When we did this work, they expressed it in movement, in structure, in grace. It was phenomenal to see individuals come who all had movement with their bodies behind the words. It was the most magical thing, next to the healing of the piece. Their movement tells stories.
And the most amazing thing to me is I get to have my children in their dances. They also attend Southern High School. How awesome is that, to incorporate being a mom and a performer and having your babies on stage with you? It’s unbelievable.
I think that’s what we love about our theater production. We get to incorporate ourselves and our artistry but we get to lift up the community, children and teens. We give them that outlet—we have this pocket where we can say, "Come on, this is what we’re doing—and you’re doing that? Well, bring it over here so we can make it grow bigger.