You wouldn’t know it from what you see on the American stage today, but drama holds deep roots in poetry. Rhapsodic and verse forms have provided an essential vehicle for playwrights imagining new experiences — from the ancient Greeks’ ritual dithyrambs to the Elizabethans’ blank verse and the sensuous sonority of Racine and Goethe, right up through Beckett, Gertrude Stein, and Suzan-Lori Parks. An
urgency of expression — often lacking in prosaic American drama these days — becomes possible when playwrights worry less about psychological dialogue and
instead arrange language for sonic, rhythmic, and emotional effects. Poetry in the theater can be just as exciting as a musical score (no shortage of those).
So what might a language-centered theater look like in the 21st century, when we communicate in telegraphic text
messages and flowery speech is becoming increasingly anachronistic? “Poetic License,” an annual festival of new plays now in its fourth year, offers some possible answers. In addition to special events and readings of six new dramas, the 2015 iteration offered two ambitious world premieres.
Paradox of the Urban Cliché, the more successful of the pair, draws on hip-hop inflections to map a struggling Harlem couple’s interior lives. Ceez (played with nuance and verve by Jaime Lincoln Smith) falls asleep watching footage of the Eric Garner case; he awakens when Authority and Agent of Authority (Morgan James Nichols and W. Tre Davis) drag him down to the station for an interrogation that turns out to be part criminal, part epistemological. His girl Smiles (Eboni Flowers) fronts a tough exterior but suffers underneath, until she finally chooses to strike back against a rigged game. In one flourish (typical of author Craig Grant’s evocative phrasings), Smiles laments, “Dreams go distant when life gets in the way. When to sustain is the struggle every day. When the neighborhood you call home changes its name from Harlem to Morningside Heights — and all you have are wishes trying to grow under a streetlight.” (Hear that, Lorraine Hansberry?)
Grant, a/k/a muMs, played Poet on the HBO show Oz. Here he devises fluid dialogue mixed with rhythm-driven soliloquies, and he’s clearly a writer to watch. Although it’s too long, Paradox
acquires potent power, with thoughtfully drawn characters and some head-
spinning turns into philosophy. Grant
alludes to great themes — power, race, justice — without grandstanding, and he keeps the focus on the inner self in the
inner city. Director Reginald L. Douglas builds a suggestive production from projections and sound design, and the cast stays remarkably sharp.
The other premiere, Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, takes a more sideways approach to poetry. Playwright Maurice Decaul, a former Marine, works hard to expose the ways language shapes realities on all sides in this drama, set during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Clips remind us of the invaders’ doublespeak; meanwhile, an Iraqi ghost leads his living comrade into rhetorical self-immolation. Decaul demonstrates immense compassion for everyone in the tragic conflict: soldiers, journalists, and conscripts-turned-insurgents. The overstretched narrative dries up in the desert heat, and Alex Mallory’s staging never establishes a theatrical rhythm for these juxtapositions. But the impulse for poetic experiment thrives in both works, even when the
results sometimes falter onstage.