An exhilarating and liberating ‘Poetry to the People: The June Jordan Experience’ at Anacostia Arts Center

From IN Series and Theater Alliance: an introduction to the poem as a weapon we can use to free ourselves.

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” ― Ernesto “Che” Guevara

“All Power to the People!” — a phrase used by the Black Panthers

Let’s just get two things out of the way:

1) This is not the first time that Che Guevara has been cited in reference to the work that June Jordan did in her lifetime. Both Che and June have been called revolutionaries. And both of their lives demonstrated the total commitment to the belief that love, far from being a hypothetical concept, is a real thing that we can and must choose to engage with if we as human beings are to survive. They both bore witness through their work to the fact that love has consequences and demands.


2) No matter who you are or what you have done in this life, you have neither read enough nor heard enough June Jordan. So, set aside whatever other plans you have and get over to Anacostia Arts Center and see Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience. Do it now. The last performance is Sunday, March 27.

Onscreen: June Jordan, at piano: Adrienne Torf, in ‘Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience.’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

The title of this presentation — taken from the name of the arts/activism program Jordan founded in 1991 — echoes the Black Panther slogan “All Power to the People!” June Jordan’s writing is both tactical and musical. This show is centered around the musicality of her text and how it is a response to the world she and we inhabit.

I sang and danced (in my apartment) to June Jordan’s poetry before I read it. My introduction to the musicality of her words came through the Bernice Johnson Reagan and Sweet Honey in the Rock songs that used Jordan’s lyrics:

“Oughta Be a Woman”

The fathers, the children, the brothers
Turn to her and everybody white turns to her
What about her turning around
Alone in the everyday light

and “Alla Tha’s All Right, But”

Somebody come and carry me into a seven-day kiss
I can’t use no historic no national no family bliss
I need an absolutely one to one a seven-day kiss”

(You can hear both songs on YouTube: Oughta Be a Woman, Alla Tha’s All Right, But.)

Llogan Peters, Ezinne Elele, and Shana Oshiro in ‘Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience.’ Photos by Manaf Azzam.

The collaborating producers for Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience IN Series and Theater Alliance. These two companies had planned to present the opera that composer John Adams and June Jordan collaborated on: “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and I Saw the Sky.” COVID necessitated the postponement of that presentation. They produced this introduction and “celebration” of the work and life of June Jordan instead.

And what a transporting, encouraging, and devastating experience it is.

IN Series’s particular expertise is in music while Theater Alliance’s expertise is in words. This show is a lot about the intersectionalities in those areas. That intersectionality is essential to Jordan’s work. In her words:

Poetry was the first kind of literature my father gave me to read… He was premature and he gave me all these things that I could not understand. But I had to memorize them anyway. That meant I had to acquire them — the words — one way or another. For me, at that point, I acquired them mostly by sound. So, I became very sensitive to sound and also excited by the sounds of words… In other words, the music of the language saved my neck as a kid.

Adrienne Torf, a pianist and composer, was Jordan’s life partner and collaborator for many years. Torf not only collaborated in the development of The June Jordan Experience; she also provides indispensable piano accompaniment. Through her performance and presence, we have a physical link to the power of the intersection of music and words from which June Jordan’s work springs.

Onscreen: Adrienne Torf and June Jordan. From left: Ezinne Elele, Anna Shafer, Adrienne Torf (at piano), Lisa Danielle Buch, and Sophia Early in ‘Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience.’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

My guest for the evening was Michelle Parkerson, Black lesbian poet, professor, and filmmaker (Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey in the Rock; A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde). She recently completed the short film Fierceness Served (about the ENIK Alley Coffeehouse, DC’s seminal showcase and development space for Black and LGBTQ artists during the 1980s).

Michelle inhabited this world and I enjoyed hearing her retrace how her life threads intersected with Jordan’s:

I met June in New York through Roadwork [the multiracial coalition founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Amy Horowitz in 1978 to “put women’s culture on the road”]. A lot of people don’t know June’s work. It’s not foregrounded. I think it is important for folks to see how June’s personal backstory ignited her writing/her art.

Indeed, from the poster advertising the performance through the staging and choice of poems and music, as Michelle put it, “the show reached for that connection beautifully.”

The show’s title, Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience, raises some questions: What was “the June Jordan experience” for her? (And what do we need to know about it?) What is “the June Jordan experience” for us who hear and read her writing? (And what can we do with it?)

At the center of the stage in the intimate black box space at Anacostia Arts Center is a baby grand piano that is flanked by a pew on each side. The setup subtly suggests a devotional space. Maybe a funeral parlor. Maybe the Presbyterian churches June Jordan grew up in. A huge, subtly colored, and textured screen takes up the back wall.

Michelle whispers to me:

This production and the space it inhabits is just the right size for being in a conversation with the words of this poet, whose conversations with you, like those of Audre Lorde [another lesbian poet activist], would focus wholly on you and exclude the rest of the room and company that you are in.

At first, I was put off by the presence of music stands and microphones, which suggested to me the possibility of a conventional and somewhat stilted presentation of poetry. But then there was the sound of broken chords on the piano (from the opening of “Brooklyn from the Roof” by Adrienne Torf). This music harnessed those emotions and was reassuring at the same time. You’re in the right place, it seemed to say.

Anna Shafer, Lisa Danielle Buch, and Sophia Early in ‘Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience.’ Photos by Manaf Azzam.

The six actor-singers, in turn, rise from the pews to perform Jordan’s words at the front of the stage. Then the cast begins to sing — a cappella, as it should be — Bernice Johnson Reagan’s setting of June Jordan’s poem “Oughta Be a Woman.”

They return to the pews at the conclusion of the piece, and the performers and the pianist all turn away from the audience to give their full attention to the message being delivered from the screen. These images of the past — of demonstrations, of literary and political legends (Bernice Johnson Reagan, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and others) reciting Jordan’s work — loom over and merge with the staged proceedings in the present. The patterns on the screen onto which these images were projected made it seem to me that I was seeing these images and memories through broken glass shards of an old school door. In fact, reflecting Jordan’s role as a teacher, the titles to the different segments of the performance are handwritten (as if on a chalkboard) across the top of the screen, and we hear the chalk making its mark as the moving hand writes.

The next 75 minutes are an exhilarating ride through the work of one of the most prolific, versatile, influential, and important writers, educators, and defenders of the human side of humanity of the late 20th century.

I loved the costumes by Bebe LaMonica. They conveyed the humility, dignity, self-awareness, and intentionality of African-heritage women in America from mid-20th century. They didn’t necessarily look vintage: they looked… remembered.

This production is very clear about what “the June Jordan experience” was for her and how that experience “ignited” her work. Whatever happened to her, she wrote about it: her father beating her, her mother’s silence, her mother’s suicide, her son, her two rapes, her divorce, cancer. She wrote about all of it, told the truth about all of it, and connected all of it to the larger world and her agency in it.

For Jordan the idea that the personal is political was not a slogan but a profoundly inescapable fact of life. Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience shows us June Jordan’s journeys; it shows us what an activist is and how and why one should become one.

Michelle Parkerson again:

Having done a documentary on Audre Lorde, I’m real aware that one of the things you try to do is show audiences the person that’s creating this phenomenal work on stage. This production was really successful in giving you a sense of June’s personality AND PERSONALITIES over a range of ages. This production accomplished that through the juxtaposition of live performances of her pieces against the media background that consisted of interviews with Jordan and others in her life… I walked away from this production having experienced the breadth of her influence. People don’t know that she had incredible range as a writer. She saw complexity of personal and world events that we should all be aware of.

Experiencing the presence and attention of the June Jordan embodied in this production, I felt loved, seen, and valued. And overwhelmed, not by the production but by contemplating all the changes and growth Jordan experienced, all the things she was in the vanguard of changing, and the work still left to do: “the complexity of personal and world events that we should all be aware of.” That part. But maybe this knowledge is power. June Jordan introduces us to the poem as a weapon we can use to free ourselves. In an interview at the Brockport Writer’s Forum, Jordan had this to say about some of the reasons for her work to bring poetry to the people:

Everyone should know what a neutron bomb is. That is not a white issue or a black issue. No one can afford this. That is a suicidal ghettoization of your mind. If there is anything I want to do with my work it’s to encourage people — if not kick them, pull, drag, what have you, yank them — into action. Life is action. Inaction is death. And at this time, if you can’t see that at this specific instant of American history, if you can’t see that, I think you’re already gone: not a victim, gone.

Llogan Peters, Ezinne Elele, Lisa Danielle Buch, Adrienne Torf (pianist and composer), Sophia Early, Anna Shafer, and Shana Oshiro in ‘Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience.’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience runs to March 27, 2022, co-produced by Theater Alliance and IN Series performing at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road SE, Washington, DC. Tickets ($40 general admission; $30 student, Senior, Military) can be purchased online.

Radical Neighboring: 10 Name-Your-Own-Price tickets will be available at the theater an hour before each performance.

The program for Poetry to the People: The June Jordan Experience is online here.

COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination is required to attend this performance. Within the Anacostia Arts Center and throughout the performance, all patrons will be asked to keep masks on.


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