Poet Suzi Q. Smith: Opening doors that had been slammed shut

Video highlights from Off-Center’s ‘How I Got Over: Journeys in Verse.’

Suzi Q. Smith has spent much of her life giving voice to suppressed and oppressed girls and young women, and that’s just what she is doing now in her first collaboration with the Denver Center. How I Got Over: Journeys in Verse features Smith and four young warrior poets offering fresh and largely unheard perspectives.

That’s also what Smith has done working with Youth on Record, the advocacy band Flobots and many local organizations including the Denver Minor Disturbance youth poetry collective, Children’s Hospital, the Pan African Arts Society and the Denver Center for Trauma and Relience.

“I think it’s important to teach what we learn,” said Smith, a 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam finalist. “I think it’s necessary for me to provide them with those things that I didn’t have. I think it’s our collective obligation to make life better or easier and leave the world a better place than we found it.”

Smith grew up in Denver’s Park Hill  neighborhood and, admittedly anachronistically, graduated from Chatfield Senior High in Littleton – “which is a chapter I don’t often discuss,” she said with a laugh. She then matriculated to the University of Colorado at Denver.

Smith was approached last year by the Denver Center’s Emily Tarquin about putting a show together, and Smith immediately knew she wanted to create a collective, collaborative project featuring largely silent voices. Tarquin is the Producing Curator of Off-Center, the DCPA’s more adventurous programming side, which is known for forging unexpected collaborations with alternative local artists.

Smith gathered a few of her slam poet friends and mentees, and together they started figuring out what they would want to say. “We had to get pretty raw in our writing process together, and not everyone knew each other, so it took a little while,” Smith said.

Eventually they landed on the subjects they wanted to explore and started weaving them together into a show: “We talk about hair and beauty, we talk about religion and spirituality, we talk about food and family, and we talk about motherhood. All kinds of things,” Smith said. “Basically it’s about how we survive difficulties in our lives; how we’ve gotten through things. You know: ‘How we got over …’ ”

The cast performing through Saturday (March 26) at the Denver Center’s Jones Theatre includes Smith, Jenee EliseRalonda Simmons and the Nigerian-born Toluwanimi Obiwole – Colorado’s first youth poet laureate.

“She’s a brave new voice,” Smith said of the college student who goes by “Tolu.” I met her when she was 17 and she was a member of Denver Minor Disturbance. I met her as her coach and have watched her grow up and blossom, so it’s pretty great to have her up there with me now.”

Photo by Nicholas Renaud.

The director of How I Got Over is Bianca Mikahn, who gave birth on Monday (March 22). “She’s still in the show using some fancy technology, though,” Smith said, crediting multimedia support from the DCPA’s Charlie Miller and Topher Blair.

The five cast members are all in their 20s or 30s but come from very different life experiences. Two are mothers: Mikahn for two days now – and Smith for 17 years.

“I’ve been a mother my entire adult life,” said Smith, who said giving birth has informed everything she has written since.

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“I think it’s important to give something to my daughter that’s sort of a guidebook,” she said. “Things that I would have liked to have had when I was her age. I think there’s a lot in this show that’s a gift to her and many other girls and women like her. Things we wish we would’ve known; things we wish someone would’ve told us. Things we thought and said that we felt we were alone in.”

Slam poetry represents a major departure for Denver Center and Off-Center, but last weekend’s opening performances were so well received, a 4 p.m. performance has been added for Saturday (March 26). Smith estimates about half the crowd last weekend were slam regulars, and half had no clue why the audience snaps its fingers rather than claps. (It’s to let a performer know she is being felt, not just heard, without disturbing the cadence of her piece.) That slam is a new experience for many in the Jones Theatre just makes How I Got Over that much more meaningful to Smith.

“It’s huge for us to be doing this at the Denver Center,” she said. “It for sure feels like the first time that very underrepresented voices are really officially being welcomed into the larger arts community. I think we’ve operated on the fringe for a very long time, so it’s really incredible to be able to work with the Off-Center team and to be at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. It makes me feel proud and grateful.”

The audience response, she says, tells her that people have been hungry for slam. “It’s empowering in a lot of ways because not only is it representing voices we haven’t heard from before, but because we’re all co-writers of the show, there’s a lot of power in being able to tell your own story so specifically, with your own voice and with your own words. So the fact that we’re literally doing that is incredible. It’s just really beautiful.”

What slam newcomers stand to gain, she said, is empathy. And an expanded worldview. “It’s also just wildly human, and there’s a certain breaking down of barriers when you hear this show. I think there’s a lot of universality in it.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

The cast of Off-Center's 'How I Got Over: Journeys in Verse.' Photo by Nicholas Renaud.

The cast of Off-Center’s ‘How I Got Over: Journeys in Verse.’ Photo by Nicholas Renaud.

How I Got Over: Journeys in Verse: Information

  • Remaining performances: 8 p.m. Friday, March 25’ 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 26
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby.

Here are more excerpts form our conversation with Suzi Q. Smith:

John Moore: When do you think it’s important and appropriate to use words as weapons?

Suzi Q. Smith: I think some people’s identities are politicized no matter what they do. It’s powerful and important and necessary for people to identify themselves and speak for themselves. And I think in that, words become a tool of revolution by simply owning your own narrative.

John Moore: One of your signature sayings in your performances has been, “There is a riot in my bones.” And there is a lot of talk about riots in the current presidential campaign. What do you think about what is going on out there?

Suzi Q. Smith: Alice Walker said the easiest way to remove power from someone is to make them think they don’t have any. And I think a lot of people have forgotten their power. So it’s really about waking them up, and reminding them they have a lot of power in their voices. Standing up and speaking out is incredibly powerful. I think we’re seeing that now. And that particular candidate you are referring to (Donald Trump) is definitely awakening some unfortunate sleeping monsters in this country. But I think he’s waking up a lot of other people and forcing them to stand up and take positions and say things out loud – and I think there’s a great deal of power in that. I don’t think he will be our president because I think the people are powerful enough to stop it, and I think that most of us want to.

Why is poetry your preferred form of expression? 

Suzi Q. Smith: The language of poetry allows people to connect to their thoughts and ideas in ways that are a lot more open and flexible, I think. One of the beautiful things about poetry is that it’s so figurative, and I think it’s a much stronger invitation than a lot of other forms of writing.

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