In the wake of World Mental Health Day, last Thursday (10th October), it seems apt that this performance, dealing with the stigma surrounding such issues, should continue where it left off. Poignant and undeniably informative, Showcase Smoothie, an innovative literature and music based project working with men who have mental health problems, set up a lively dialogue through the medium of spoken word poetry.
The studio became a platform where a collection of diverse individuals with unique voices blended (albeit not quite so smoothly as the project suggests) to create a conversation which demanded to be heard. The question of whether the performance lived up to its title ‘Poems To Hear Before You Die’ consequently became irrelevant as their poetry evolved into something much more important: an argument.
The evening was set to a soundtrack of relaxing reggae which contrasted well with the sometimes fiery lines which streamed from many of the male assembly. After a number of serious and intense individual recitals, which left me rather emotionally raw, the entire troop of poets would break into rhythmic dance which helped to keep the atmosphere altogether more light-hearted.
It also served as a reminder of how poetry can be used as a creative outlet to assist many of the performers with their mental illnesses, a matter which was extensively addressed in the Q&A following the performance. Much like the experiences of the cast, the hour of poetry played out with many ups and downs, which although at times was uncomfortable, was definitely both engaging and enjoyable.
In line with the variation of moods was the tempo at which the poetry was set. The pace was originally controlled through the slow, yet powerful, drawl of MC Major Sass concerning the loss of his favourite sport, encapsulated by the melancholic repetition of ‘I just want to box, box, box’. It would be a lie to say that the majority of the audience weren’t without watery eyes however those tears were soon wiped away with the gradual shift in speed brought about by the talented MC Pinball. His piece consisted of a slick reel of rhymes that spoke of his struggle with schizophrenia; the rapidity made the poem almost light hearted but was all the more effective for it, rendering it short but strong. Once again, his voice was one that demanded attention.
The succession of separate pieces performed by members of Showcase Smoothie I thought put it at risk of becoming fragmented and at times was a little disjointed. Nevertheless, this issue was resolved when the men united to speak a final line of poetry signalling the end of the performance. In the words of Bob Marley- who was frequently referenced by patron Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze- they spoke from ‘one love, one heart’.
As for the quality of the poetry itself, it was certainly original, if a little simple at times. There were clearly varying degrees of experience amongst the cast and those that lacked practice were often carried by their companions. There were times during the intermittent reggae dancing too where some of the men appeared embarrassed so moved half-heartedly. Yet the gravitas of the poetry made me overlook these minor deficiencies. The simplicity of some of the pieces did not always detract from their power either; sometimes speaking the truth is what gives a poem underlying strength, as MC Pinball pointed out later in the Q&A. And it is the use of truth that made this night of poetry a success; the reality that mental health is still stigmatised. Together the men crafted a multifaceted argument for the need to deconstruct faulty beliefs. They demanded attention and they certainly got mine.
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For more information about Showcase Smoothie click here.