Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Willie Evans Jr.
In the book The Corner, writers David Simon and Edward Burns chronicle a year in the life of the McCullough family—DeAndre and his divorced parents: Gary and Fran. The book is wrenching in its unflinching look into life at the nexus of drug life in Baltimore. The Corner acts as a chronicle of events, neither condemning nor endorsing the actions of its principle characters. In approaching the book from a neutral angle, the authors convey the endless cycles of hope, addiction, despair, and crime that is a reality for tens of thousands of people. Really it’s a glimpse into another (hidden) culture.
So perhaps it was providence that poet Al Letson launched his newest piece, Summer at Sanctuary in Baltimore, a city not unfamiliar with grinding poverty. “Letson is a powerful performer who tells his story by moving fluidly from one role to the next . . . A show full of gems,” The Baltimore Sun.
Summer at Sanctuary is described as a choreopoem, but in truth Letson does very little dancing. What he does do is take the story of his time at spent at Springfield’s Sanctuary at 8th Street, and use it as a lens through which he tells fragments of his life story, and the lives of the children he was working with.
Though he tells us that the consensus from the kids was that “Mr. Al” was corny as hell, the larger story he is telling is one where grown men confront children in the street, with guns drawn. A story where the 15 year-old boy, Biko, must seriously consider whether or not he’s going to kill the man who threatened and shamed him in the street.
These are the kind of dilemmas that most adults are never forced to deal with, let alone a child. So without proselytizing or beating his bear breast, Letson opens the lid of Springfield—and by extension poverty-stricken neighborhoods across the country—and shows the audience how truly bad things are, yet they are not without hope, its just a different and much reduced kind of hope.
The success of Sanctuary rests largely on two things, Letson’s own observations turned into brilliant wordplay, and the production skills of Willie Evans Jr. Consider this: in describing his initial forays into performing in Jacksonville, he cites Stephen Dare as a huge supporter, “one part Beelzebub and one part St. Luke.” It’s as perfect a description as one could desire for the omni-controversial Dare. While Evans, a member of the A.B.’s (formerly Asamov), a producer, and solo artist, brings a light touch to the score that accompanies the work. In fact, it was because his name was attached to the project that my interest was piqued.
Though there are places where the work runs a little long, overall it is a highly cohesive show that does more than memorialize a middle-class poet’s stint as a do-gooder. Indeed, Letson plans to return to the Sanctuary this summer. One wonders what his days there this time around will be like. Will he once again find himself and another staffer holding on to a thrashing eight-year old girl who wants to die, promising her over and over again that “Jesus loves you and I do too?” Or will he, once again by the grace of fate and the universe, be able to hold his own on the b-ball court against a 13 year-old who makes lay-ups look as easy as the simple, laconic flick of a wrist?
Of the piece, Letson wrote on his blog: “Government can’t change the story of Springfield, of poverty, of lost children. Only people can. God may work through governments at times, although evidence of that in recent times is slim to none, but I think it’s in the heart of man, where he whispers his providence. I hope this piece will soften some hearts so they can hear that whisper and do something.”
Though I am not sure when Summer in Sanctuary will be staged again, I suggest that those people who read and listen to David Sedaris, get out and support Mr. Al when it next goes up.
*apologies for the sorry pics. I promise, I am working on getting a better camera.