The Latitude of Self Expression

by Jonathan Wright

Whisper & Shout brings spoken word and poetry to the CAC.

He stands resolute, a man of serious purpose, black pants and black suit jacket against the curved-glass backdrop. It’s not just the full beard and steadfast posture that bring to mind the prophets of old; it’s the clarity of a voice wiser than its years, dignified and authoritative, its measured cadence a song of its own. The poet looks slightly upward as if gathering strength from the heavens, bows his head and folds his hands before him, then launches into his next verbal missive. Twenty-two-year-old Randall Mance of Champaign-Urbana is headlining Whisper & Shout at Peoria’s Contemporary Art Center.

A Platform to Share
February marked the four-year anniversary of the open mic night, which got its start in 2011 thanks to the efforts of Ryan Lowry and Brandon “Xplicit” Thornton, two local poetry enthusiasts. “The intent,” Lowry explains, “was to bring that [spoken word] element to Peoria, an area that we thought had been lacking for some time.” While the city hosted performances of spoken word and poetry, they lacked a consistent presence. “When some of those shows kind of fell off the map, we decided to start one of our own.”

Attending Whisper & Shout for the first time, one is immediately struck by its inclusiveness. Before any of the night’s performers assume the stage, Lowry cajoles the audience to leave their seats and introduce themselves to at least five people they don’t already know. In spite of some internal groaning, this set of interactions sets the stage for what’s to come.

“We want people to be engaged with each other,” Lowry says, “and with the artists and the poetry. [We try] to create that atmosphere of open sharing and open thinking, so people feel comfortable with each other.”

Unlike slam poetry, Whisper & Shout is not a competition; there are no judges, no winners or losers. “For us, it’s not really about that,” he declares. “It’s about open sharing and everybody getting the platform to share.”

It proves to be a supportive and encouraging environment for performers, who are given broad latitude for their self-expression. The mic is truly open—anyone with the guts to stand up and say their piece can do so. “Just show up early enough to sign up,” Lowry says. “That’s it—there’s really no stipulation on what you can say.” But there is a five-minute time limit, “so if you’re going over that time, we’ll ask you to wrap it up… unless, of course, you’re really entertaining.”

And one never knows what’s coming next. “It’s an open mic, so we do put the disclaimer out that you’re liable to hear anything!” Lowry laughs.

Wit, Spirit, Charisma
Having earned local and regional renown as a poet and performer, Brandon Thornton left Peoria last year for Ohio, where the math professor turned full-time poet remains active in the urban poetry scene. Since his cofounder’s departure, Lowry has taken the reins as Whisper & Shout’s host and promoter, booking and emceeing the monthly event—a role for which his quick wit, easygoing spirit and natural charisma are perfectly matched. A longtime DJ, he also has a solid base of experience emceeing special events, but you might be surprised at his day job.

“I’m a chemical engineer, professionally,” Lowry says. “People are usually surprised to hear that… They don’t always think of engineers as being creative, artsy-type people.” But debunking that stereotype comes easy to the Manual High School graduate, emblematic in many ways of Whisper & Shout itself.

Anchored by a different headliner each month, the open mic format proves to be an engaging experience. “We usually invite a feature artist—either a professional spoken word artist, or someone who’s accomplished and who we know will be entertaining—to inspire the local writers. And we draw from cities throughout the Midwest to bring in different talent and different styles of poetry.”

Among Lowry’s favorite locals are Kristopher Plog, who “comes just about every time and always has something interesting and witty to bring,” and Aizha, whose work leans toward the erotic side of poetry: “People are always interested in hearing her.” Meanwhile, a steady group of friends help out: working the door, playing music between acts, passing the tip jar around. In the future, Lowry hopes to expand the Thursday-night show and “move beyond the open mic”—attracting even bigger poets and entertainers to Peoria.

Rhythm of the Night
On this particular January evening, Monica kicks off the night by reciting her poem, “The Color Purple,” from memory, followed by Eve’s personal, heartfelt edge, and Nicole, who explains “This is You on Tequila.” Between introducing the dozen or so artists, Lowry offers commentary and rapport. In the audience, particularly poignant lines are acknowledged with snaps of the fingers; others lobby for verbal encores with shouts of “Rewind!” It becomes part of the rhythm. Brooklyn rises to the stage, her hands trembling but her voice steady—it’s her first time reading. Her very personal words reach out and touch the audience. Then it’s time for tonight’s feature artist.

Randall Mance assumes the microphone, another bard in a line of oral tradition that stretches back and across time to the shores of West Africa. He speaks of paradigm shifts and the facades of modern life; he play-acts the role of a kid he once bullied in school, talking back to his younger self, repenting for the lessons he’s learned since. Later, he summons T.R.U.T.H. to the stage—his artistic partner and “sister” in art—and the two join forces. She begins to freestyle, words flowing across her tongue by instinct, and the audience claps along, keeping a primitive beat.

With the show almost over, I’m pleased to note the evening has been virtually free of run-of-the-mill beatnik rhymes and the exaggerated angst of adolescents. I’d laughed more than once, very nearly cried, and learned a thing or two. And I was definitely entertained. a&s

Whisper & Shout takes place at 8pm on the first Thursday of the month at the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria. For more information, call (309) 674-6822.

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