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Blues and Poetry Cafe a unique experience

Analise Lipari | Monday, September 26, 2005

It may seem like a simple black box theatre to the naked eye, but to any of the attendants of the Blues and Poetry Café Thursday night, the Regis Philbin Studio theatre was transformed into a darkened, stylish, soulful gathering place of poets and musicians.

The small space, lit with deep blue and purple lights and spotted with tall black tables, had the atmosphere of a chic café or coffeehouse on any lamp-lit Chicago corner. The poetic and musical performances, however, made the event one of the most unique and enjoyable artistic components of University President Father John Jenkins’ inauguration weekend.

Mood is an important component of any performance, and for those poets of the Cave Canem poetry workshop, the underlying mood was one of joyful expression of emotion. Led by Professor Cornelius Eady, coordinator of the Café, the Cave Canem poets recited and read personal works that dealt with love lost and gained, with family and with pain and sorrow.

A layer of smoke wafting through the stage and seated audience allowed the depth of feeling felt in the spoken word selections to come through to the audience with strength and clarity. With each reading, silence filled the Philbin theatre, as the audience listened to the careful rhythms and wording of the poets’ works.

Each poet gave his or her own observations on the African-American experience in his or her work.

Toni Assante Lightfoot, in a poem describing the life of African-American stage performer Jackie Moms Mayblean, characterizes her narrator as a witty and independent woman.

“[Mablean] was born with a joke in her tears,” Lightfoot recited at the poem’s opening. Using expressive vocabulary and vocalizations, Lightfoot portrayed Mayblean as a woman not unfamiliar with lost love.

“He curdled in my hands,” she said effectively about Mayblean’s former love. Lightfoot’s tale of Mayblean’s life connected the audience with a new and different part of the African-American heritage.

Ultimately, what made the poetry performances so attention-grabbing was the stark and simple nature of the performances. A single voice was the focal point, with little else to distract the audience members but their coffee mugs. This led to an undisturbed connection with each poet and their work.

The second component of the Blues and Poetry Café was, logically, the great blues music. The featured performance was that of Notre Dame’s own Oblates of Blues, who played two sets over the course of the evening. Led by founder Professor Max Johnson and featuring Dean of First Year of Studies Hugh Page, the Oblates of Blues played terrific, traditional blues with a fun twist. Band members such as Larry “Knuckles” O’Sullivan and Nick “Driving Wheel” Russo contributed to this new and more loosened up atmosphere.

With the start of their first song, “I Ain’t Gonna Mow My Yard [Till My Baby Comes Home],” the band kicked into an energetic performance with an infectious mood and a danceable rhythm. The good feelings continued throughout their time on stage, as Page’s harmonica and Johnson’s soulful guitar filled the air. Closing their set with a slow, smooth musical tale of a man with change on his mind, the Oblates of Blues played an all-too-short selection of fun, memorable blues music.

The Blues and Poetry Café was one of several events running at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center during the weekend of the inauguration. Despite the myriad events, the Café stood out as a unique and fascinating slice of culture.