November 06, 2021
Black Box Theater’s “Poems That Wander” Breaks New Ground
Poems that Wander: Moving with Tracy K. Smith is one of the most inventive productions to ever grace the Black Box Theater. Drawing from 17 poems of our Warren Baird English Symposium author and the nation’s Poet Laureate from 2017-2019, the “play” was a collaboration of our English, theater, and dance departments. In the director’s playbill note, Director of Theater Kyle Reynolds shared how the experience empowered the KO students, “More than ever, much of the devised theater was created and originated by students. Normally, we have a script to follow, and this year the student took the incredible works of Tracy K. Smith and interpreted it for themselves: how did the text make them feel? How did the text inform them? What movement seemed fitting for this text?”
Smith’s works explore disparate themes of identity, loss, racism, technology, David Bowie, and the universe. Her poems are visual and cinematic and lend themselves to performance. In some cases, the students recited the poems from the minimalist stage which was divided into segments (sand, water, pebbles) dominated by a large tree in the background while other works were read by a voice-over of Tracy K. Smith. Throughout the reading of the poems, the performers weaved in fluid, expressive motions, an intersection of the rhythmic qualities of the poetry itself, and an exploration of the body in space. In “Declaration,” performed by Jada Asapokahai ’23, a poem based in part on the Declaration of Independence, Smith literally erases some of the text in the source document and imbues new meaning into it: exposing the hypocrisy of our country’s claim to extoll freedom of all men while simultaneously retaining chattel slavery. Asapokhai delivered her lines from the area of the stage filled with a small pool of water dipping her hands in it recalling the slaves ships brought across the ocean. “Unrest in Baton Rouge” featured a chilling swat team surrounding Naomi Wong ’22, the narrator, who reflects on a photo of a young female protestor in a billowy dress confronting police officers in riot gear. And, in wonderful inclusiveness and recognition of the universality of poetry, Victoria Tang ’22, Tammy Cai, ’24, and Amaris Hu ‘25 performed Yi Lei’s “Green Trees Greet the Rainstorm“ in Chinese with translation by Smith. “Rapture,” read by Tracy K. Smith was performed by special guest Lauren Horn, an acclaimed local choreographer who has an uncanny ability to translate text into movement. Horn worked with the students to devise suitable movements to amplify Smith’s text.
Upper School English Symposium teacher Mela Frye selected the poems for the performance based on several criteria: ones she felt could work without a person reading the poem, ones that were visually arresting, and others that used repetitive sounds. Additionally, she was conscious of choosing works that would resonate with teenagers since oftentimes Smith’s work explores themes of adult relationships. Lastly, Frye assembled the poems in an arc so that they flow with a beginning, middle, and end. “I grouped the poems thematically,” she said, “The first poems relate to what we do to the Earth and each other and then move into her works of history and politics. The next transition is about the metaphors that help us understand the universe and our place within it. The last poems wrap all of those ideas together.”
Speaking to the student performers, Zaire Ramiz ’25 expressed his profound connection to the work, especially in his reading of “We Feel Now a Largeness Coming On,” a poem that contends with the burden of history that lives within the black body. Faith Potter ’23 appreciated the interdisciplinary collaboration of theater, literature, and dance, marrying all of her passions in one singular project.
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