September 20, 2017 | Feature
The threads that wind between us
AS220, a community arts organization based in downtown Providence, has flourished because it has kept its independence paramount.
In 1992, founder Umberto Crenca purchased a 21,000 square foot building in the heart of downtown Providence, in a derelict part of town, with no running water or electricity. In the span of a year, it became a haven for artists struggling to find affordable housing and a productive art community. In the following years, Umberto and AS220 managed to acquire three more buildings, which they now rent out to restaurants and shops that share its social justice aesthetic – a revolution from within, disassembling the master’s house without the master’s tools. The funds from these rents go towards buying new art supplies, putting on events, and upgrading AS220 facilities. AS220 now hosts all kinds of arts spaces – from spoken word slams to rotating gallery spaces to programs for Rhode Island youth.
Umberto boasts that he turned Providence from “the armpit of Rhode Island” to the booming artistic and cultural center it is today. He came in with a mission – that performances in the space would be “unjuried, uncensored, and open to the general public”. He claims that his missive of “fear no art” is what made the Providence community what it is today.
But what does it mean to be a part of that community?
At the CUPSI (College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational) show, the first thing that strikes me is that even though it is a small room there is still so much space. I am used to listening to spoken word from afar, in the cold seats of college auditoriums. Here, the stage stands uncomfortably close. Here, I see how warm the dark really is. Spoken word still feels like an onslaught, 1.5 hours of shifting bodies yelling and cursing and crying, listeners stomping and snapping and whooping when they hear something they like; it is beautiful, but still hefty and dark.
Do the performers lounge here pre-performance, all jitters and excitement? Change into their performance outfits, wear them all day, keep them close to their chests until it’s time to shine? How do they prepare to step into this building, or are they constant ghosts?
I like daydreaming about creating art outside the chokehold of buildings, with the city sprawling around, the goal not to understand it but to capture its pulse. That is why I am caught off guard when they distribute whiteboards to the audience members and tell them that they are now the slam’s judges.
A person gets up on stage. One side of their head is shaved close and their long blond hair stands off their head with a green streak running through it. They are wearing a dark green and purple plaid dress, off-white knee-high socks, and chunky boots that look vaguely Doc Martens-ish. The poem is not spoken word style; it is not hard-hitting and immediate like most poems I have heard. The poet is gentle on stage. I don’t get the sense that they are being particularly vulnerable, but their words have a little lilt and hue—soft purple, or something like that. Quiet poetry, loud appearance. The white boards go up. The emcee announces the scores. 6 out of 10, 6.5 out of 10, 7.3. They sit back down, and I feel bad because I predicted what happened before it did.
How do they enter this space? Do they think about the creator’s free spirit beating up at the wooden floors, or the legacy of the building we huddle in together? During the poem they hold up two hands in front of their face and make metaphors about mirrors, and I hear the ground agree.
The emcee deadpans another advertisement for something else happening in the space, and I can tell he is having trouble not inserting commentary to bridge the transitions. Unapologetically black, he tells us in his own slam. Wears sandals even though Providence is beginning to double in on itself from the cold. You can tell he has experience here, that this building is like a second home.
The judges are hesitant to give scores throughout the slam, so the emcee encourages them to help him out, for Christ’s sake, since there’s only so much stalling he can do (cue laughter). I am on guard, aware of how public this is and how everyone can see and judge their decisions. Do the judges feel this? Do they feel like they are performing too?
The city outside sounds small, wrapping itself in the opening and closing of the door, the strangers that stand by the usher’s booth and politely keep their scarves and coats on despite the heat. AS220 is small but the stage is big. Every time an audience member stomps in awe another heartbeat darts between us.
A girl from ProvSlam Youth gets up on stage. She has fans; there is cheering and whooping as she walks up. In terms of the spoken word aesthetic, she is unassuming. Blond hair, a smile that spreads as the lights rise, red lipstick, simple dress, and combat boots. She spreads her arms wide and performs a poem about a crush on her favorite male celebrity, in a voice just confident enough to sell the sincerity behind the wit. I don’t like to ask why to everything, but I find myself asking why this time. It’s not bad but it’s not what I’m used to, and I’m sad to feel the heartbeat beneath us stop. This is art for the artists, art for the purpose of art, but what are the fractures under the surface? Where does the city create itself? On the stage? In the motley audience? I wonder how much of the show is determined before we even get here, before we even sit down to write, to see, to live.
Scores: 6s, 7s, a 5.7 that is particularly harsh. She doesn’t seem shaken and goes into her next poem. It is about sexual assault.
Now her lips are alive, moving fast, eyebrows pressed down and eyes darting in rapid motion. She is angry. She is not sad, not lilting, not lilac. She is excavating, and we are watching her burn the remains. This is the art I’m used to, the art that leaves me burned out after the first few rounds but demands I keep the candle to the flame. It doesn’t seem any different for her, unhinging art from her chest versus swirling it around in her palms. She looks like a performer through and through and takes the better scores in stride, her bounce off the stage reminding me of her youth.
Did she expect this? Did she plan on it? I don’t quite know if she was successful; she doesn’t advance to the next round. But her first poem was a moment of levity in 1.5 hours of shifting bodies and passing trauma, and she seems experienced enough at her craft. She is the one who is from here, not me. She is the one who has lived here, and I haven’t. And yet, she is the one who seems least aligned with the threads that wind between us all in this small room, in this small cozy building.