April 20, 2010 | Feature
Projecting Their V.O.I.C.E.
sarah kay & phil kaye spread the word
article by Kara Kaufman
Sarah Kay ’10 steps onto the stage in the Salomon Center, brown eyes wide behind the frames of her glasses. She walks toward the microphone, skirt rustling softly as her feet come to a halt. Deliberately, she places her hands at her sides, opens her lips, and begins to speak.
On this particular night, Sarah joins Phil Kaye ’10 onstage to perform an original spoken word poem about the history of the United States. But this is no ordinary history essay — the two poets remind the audience of Japanese internment, of the Chinese Exclusion Act, of Hiroshima, and of Indian land acquisitions. Sarah’s soft voice echoes throughout the hall as she finishes the piece, singing softly, “Let freedom ring.” The audience, a collection of students gathered at Brown for last year’s Ivy Leadership Summit, rises in a chorus of applause, giving Sarah and Phil a standing ovation.
Unlike many of her fellow seniors, Sarah knows her post-graduation plans. Rather than settle down near Wall Street, Main Street, or any other permanent street, Sarah will be touring the world full-time as a spoken word artist. She will act as her own boss, because the organization she will spearhead, Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression), is one that she founded.
Sarah got her first taste of spoken word poetry as a high school freshman. At the United Nations International School in New York City, Sarah developed a passion for writing but felt too nervous to perform onstage. In ninth grade, she watched a movie called SlamNation, which features some of the world’s most talented spoken word artists, including a poet named Taylor Mali. Sarah was impressed by the film’s portraits of performers who effortlessly mixed theatrical techniques with poetry. One month after watchingSlamNation, Sarah was surprised to receive a letter congratulating her on registering for the New York City Teen Poetry Slam. She calls this letter “divine intervention” because, to this day, she cannot finda single person who will confess to having signed her up. She wrote one poem for the competition, which put her through to the second round. After performing a second time, Sarah introduced herself to Taylor Mali, one of the judges, who told her she was the best poet he had seen at the competition. In the same breath, he encouraged her to continue to perform. Exhilarated, Sarah began to attend Mali’s shows; after a while, he became a close friend and mentor. Sarah, in turn, began to perform at the Bowery Poetry Club, one of New York’s most well-known spoken-word venues.
By the time she was halfway through high school, Sarah was shocked to discover that she was, as she says, “significantly happier” than the people around her. She realized that this happiness stemmed from the gift of spoken word. Through the art form — which effortlessly mixed her interests in poetry and theater — Sarah learned to articulate herself in a way that compelled others to listen and even applaud. She found herself swept up in a string of shows: In 2006, she joined the Bowery Poetry Club’s Poetry Slam Team, and was the youngest competitor at that year’s National Poetry Slam in Austin, Texas. Shortly thereafter, she was featured on the sixth season of the television series Russell Simmons presents HBO Def Poetry Jam, where she performed her piece “Hands.” During her junior year of high school, Sarah began Project V.O.I.C.E. as a simple project to bring spoken word poets to her Manhattan high school. When she graduated, she thought she would leave the project behind.
As if touched again by divine intervention, one experience revived Sarah’s interest in teaching. During her freshman year at Brown, Sarah opened a show for her mentor, Mali, at Hope High School, a public school located mere blocks away from the Main Green.
The performance changed her life. As she spoke, she became acutely aware of one fact she had always known: No matter what their circumstances or histories, kids are just kids. As Sarah notes now, “The only thing that changes is what kind of bullshit you drop them in the middle of and make them deal with.” She saw that many of the Hope students were bouncing newborn babies on their laps; later, she came to learn that many were dealing with highly fraught family situations and neighborhood stresses. However, Sarah says she realized that the students were trying to answer the same questions every teenager asks: Who am I? What does that mean? How can I interact with others?
She became aware, too, of the deep disparities between the Hope community and her community at Brown. Sarah decided that the only thing she could offer these students was her skill at performing spoken word poetry. She then began to teach at Hope High School, and for the past four years, has continued to craft lesson plans and curricula in an effort to weave spoken word into preexisting courses, all while honing her skills at teaching this nontraditional art form. Some of the questions Sarah asks herself regularly are: Why should a high school English teacher care about spoken word? How could spoken word poetry fit into Shakespeare? How could it fit into a broader poetry unit?
One of Sarah’s personal goals is not only to teach students, but also to educate teachers on how to incorporate spoken word into their curricula. “In a lot of ways,” Sarah explains, “being a teacher is being a spoken word artist. You have to be able to speak in front of a classroom of kids all day long. Spoken word has a lot of tools that are useful for teachers to teach kids the real lessons—not the dates of history, but the way to present yourself and the way to have confidence to speak out loud in front of a group.” Sarah sees spoken word not only as an art form, but also as a tool to get students motivated about communication, thoughtfulness, and self-expression.
Sarah does not spearhead Project V.O.I.C.E. alone. Since her freshman year at Brown, she has enlisted Kaye’s help. Since they met at Big Ma’s Talent Show during freshman orientation (they were the only two spoken word performers), Sarah and Phil have reveled in their uncanny connections: They are both half-Japanese, half-Jewish. (In fact, both of their mothers are Japanese, and both of their fathers are Jewish.) Phil’s sister’s middle name is Sarah, and Sarah’s brother’s name is Phillip. Though Phil grew up in Orange County, California, he and Sarah attended the same camp one summer without meeting each other. And the list of odd connections continues: Sarah knew of Phil’s existence before the two ever met, because one of her cousins, who attended Phil’s high school 3,000 miles away, had mentioned him to Sarah. And though their last names are only one letter apart, the two have not found any evidence to indicate that they are biologically related.
Phil and Sarah make a striking pair. It is difficult to miss Phil’s mass of black hair, which extends from his thin frame as if it has a life of its own. His glinting eyes, quick smile, and soothing voice make everyone — from his closest friends to people he has just met — feel as though they have just caught a breath of fresh air. (It doesn’t hurt that Phil is also a poster child for Brown’s new dating site, Prospect and Meeting.) Phil has been a leader of WORD!, Brown’s performance poetry group, and has worked with maximum security inmates as part of a program called SPACE (Space in Prison for Arts and Creative Expression). In this capacity, he has facilitated poetry workshops and performances with prisoners who write about everything from religion to sci-fi fantasy pieces and, “little, funny poems about chairs,” Phil says.
Sarah, for her part, appears so comfortable in her own skin that she draws audience members toward her with each passionate hand gesture and every perfectly articulated word. Sarah and Phil’s preparatory styles complement each other: While Sarah prefers to memorize each line, Phil feels the largest adrenaline rush when he improvises, yet the two fully trust each other onstage. They often perform duet pieces, in which their clear comfort with each other and their honeyed voices harmonize on multiple levels. In other words, if Sarah were green eggs, then Phil would be the ham. If Sarah were Scooby Doo, then Phil would make the perfect Shaggy.
Through Phil’s West Coast connections, he and Sarah have already toured throughout California, performing in classrooms and teaching workshops throughout the state. Last winter, the pair performed in 12 schools and conducted 14 workshops in 10 days, reaching 4,500 students. They perform daily, both together and apart: The two lead workshops with Professor Connie Crawford’s freshman acting class in Lyman Hall; Sarah recently performed at a OneLife benefit concert in the UK; and Phil will represent Brown at this year’s College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. Though they debated whether to advertise themselves online, the duo have a Facebook fan page with more than 1,100 fans (Phil and Sarah say they gave each other a look of “no big deal” when the number reached 1,000), a website, and a long list of adoring fans.
Whether they perform pieces about United States history, their own friendship, or even Brown’s own “spicy withs,” Sarah and Phil have made a conscious choice to follow their passion for poetry and theater. Though neither can predict the future, it seems that Sarah and Phil are the ideal pair to energize the nation’s classrooms through spoken word.
Visit their website at www.project-voice.net