Theater Alliance’s revealing tribute ‘Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience’ returns with all her power

The show is an invigorating reminder of the breadth of the poet's creativity.

June Jordan is a monumental American poet and activist. Theater Alliance’s Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience is an effective and revealing tribute to her. If you don’t know Jordan’s work and life, please take this opportunity to get acquainted with both. If you already know who she is, this show will provide an invigorating reminder of the breadth of her creativity and a blueprint to the ways that the life she lived informed the work she produced. Jordan’s work embodies the principle of “the personal is the political.”

Although June Jordan died of cancer on June 14, 2002, her writing and the example of the life she led stand as hope-inducing remnants of that life. They are touchstones for many who continue to contemplate how we might survive and thrive in the United States of America. Yet, for many others, Jordan remains a largely under-appreciated artist and citizen. Her example is valuable for anyone attempting to live a life of integrity and abundance. But that example is essential for women and for people of African heritage and culture living in America.

The Ensemble in ‘Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

The current incarnation of Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience is a remount of the 2022 production. It is being performed in each of the quadrants of Washington, DC, during the month of June to expose as many of the city’s citizens as possible to Jordan’s work.

Accompanied by the distinctive pianist and composer Adrienne Torf, six actors perform Jordan’s poetry and enact the narrative of her life. Three towers housing video screens were moved around the stage allowing us to hear from such womanist cultural and civil rights icons as Fannie Lou Hamer, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and Bernice Johnson Reagon. These women share their personal testimonies on how Jordan’s life intersected with theirs. Some of them give their own readings of Jordan’s poems. Most of these people not only knew June Jordan but also collaborated with her. For example, Bernice Johnson Reagon, as founder of the vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock, created at least two songs using words by Jordan: “Alla Tha’s All Right, but” and “Oughta Be a Woman.” “Oughta Be a Woman” is performed admirably by the ensemble in this production.

The script for this show is made up mostly of Jordan’s words. They range from poems to biographical narratives of her life (“On the Spirit of Mildred Jordan,” “Ah, Momma“) to excerpts from the libretto for I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, an opera on which she collaborated with composer John Adams, to lyrics of music by her lover, Adrienne Torf, who in addition to accompanying the show on piano partnered with Raymond O. Caldwell to adapt June Jordan’s work for this script, making this a kind of posthumous love letter to the poet.

Sophia Early, Ezinne Elele, Llogan Paige, Lisa Danielle Buch (swing), and Shana Oshiro returned to this show from its original incarnation. Natalia Fyfe and Ixchel Hernandez are new to the cast. All of the performers were creditable and gave committed performances. Oshiro’s wide-ranging but husky voice combined with her generous head of Afrocentric and Afro-futuristic hair lent gravitas and palpable believability to her evocations of Jordan’s persona.

The Ensemble in ‘Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

By themselves, Jordan’s words are powerful. In her hands, poetry was often a weapon, with words that hit the ear and heart as if they are bullets. (More than once Che Guevara has been cited in reference to her work.) My one complaint about this show is that, in the Dance Place performance space, the choreography (placed on the actors as they moved the visual columns and chairs about the space) sometimes seemed decorative and distracting. In a different space, where the performers and columns are on the same level as the audience, making the presentation more immersive, I could see where the staging could be more effective. But even given that complaint, this show remains an eye-opening exposure to the vastness of June Jordan’s work and a reminder of how one writer worked to make this a world in which Black people and women — lesbian and straight — could function in their full humanity without the threat of death for being who they are.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience plays through June 23, 2024, presented by Theater Alliance. Tickets are available at the door and online. Radical Neighboring Initiative: Ten tickets per performance are reserved for Name Your Own Price Ticketing, available online.

Performances dates and locations
Culture House, 700 Delaware Ave SW (June 13–16)
Dupont Underground, 19 Dupont Circle NW (down the stairs between Starbucks and the Dupont Hotel) (June 20–23)

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

Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience
Adapted for the Stage by Adrienne Torf and Raymond O. Caldwell from the Life and Writings of June Jordan
Featuring Music by Adrienne Torf, with Selections by John Adams and Sweet Honey in the Rock
Originally Produced by Theater Alliance and IN Series in 2022

Sophia Early, Ezinne Elele, Natalia Fyfe, Ixchel Hernandez, Shana Oshiro, Llogan Paige, and Adrienne Torf

Director: Raymond O. Caldwell
Assistant Director/Swing: Lisa Danielle Buch
Scenic Design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson
Lights & Media Design: Hailey LaRoe
Sound Design: Brandon Cook
Costume Design: Brandee Mathies
Production Stage Manager: Jared Shamberger
Production Manager Dominique Douglas Hendricks

Theater Alliance remounts ‘Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience’ (news story, May 30, 2024)
An exhilarating and liberating ‘Poetry to the People: The June Jordan Experience’ at Anacostia Arts Center (review of the 2022 production by Gregory Ford, March 22, 2022)


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