CULTURE

Power, Grace, and Noise

Whether a poetry slam, a tennis court, or a Broadway stage, Reg E. Gaines always brings his best game

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Few poets can command a stage like Reg E. Gaines. For the past 30 years, the charismatic artist has mesmerized crowds at virtually every venue he has performed in. The two-time Tony and Grammy Award nominee, for the Broadway hit Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, was at the forefront of the hip-hop meets spoken-word movement of the 1990s, and countless poets have been inspired by his intense performances. “Reg E. Gaines was an original member of the Poetry Pantheon who bum-rushed the stage of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the 90s,” Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club and a former Nuyorican Poetry Slam emcee, tells the Voice. “That crew—Maggie Estep, Tracie Morris, Paul Beatty, Willie Perdomo, Mike Tyler, Dael Orlandersmith, Dana Bryant, Edwin Torres, Ron Cephas Jones, among others—would bring an energized audience and national attention to the Poetry Slam, which I imported from Chicago’s Green Mill Tavern.”

Holman describes Gaines as a “sly, rangy, self-deprecating” athlete-turned-poet. “His moves onstage mirrored his grace and power on the tennis court. His classic ‘Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans’ poem were the last words of a just-mugged teen lying bleeding on the sidewalk. Take my cash, take my drugs, but don’t take my kicks!” The poem was published in the influential arts magazine BOMB, performed during a Ted Talk by poet Lemon Anderson, and memorized by writers across the country. “When the Nuyorican Poets went on tour, audiences would chant the words to ‘Air Jordans’ alongside Gaines’s performance,” Holman notes.

my air jordans cost a hundred with tax
my suede starters jacket says ‘raiders’ on the back
i’m stylin … smilin … lookin real mean cuz
it ain’t about bein heard just bein seen
my leather adidas baseball cap
matches my fake gucci backpack
there’s nobody out there looks good as me
but the shit costs money it sure ain’t free
and i gots no job no money at all
but it’s easy ta steal the shit from the mall
parents say i shouldn’t but i know i should
gots ta do what i can to make sure i look good

 . . .

come out a the station west 4th near the park
brothers shootin hoops and someone remarks
“HEY HOMES … WHERE’D YOU GET THOSE DEF NIKES?”
as i said to myself … i likes em … i likes
they were q-tip type white and blinded my eyes
the red emblem of michael looked as if it could fly
not one spot of dirt the airs were brand new
i had my pistol knew just what to do
—Excerpts from “Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans,” by Reg E. Gaines

Perdomo, the state poet of New York 2021 to 2023, says, “When I met Reg, he had already cataloged most of the iconic poems from the Nuyorican School of Poetry and the Black Arts Movement in his memory, verse by verse, stanza by stanza. He was a walking anthology. His discipline was inspiring and his love of poetry is real. He can ignite your political consciousness with any of his haiku, and the full-length triptych vanity mirror scene in Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk was one of the most powerful theater moments I ever witnessed. Reg E. Gaines brings in the smoke.”

Gaines has published three books of poetry, including The Original Buckwheat, and his work appears in anthologies such as Aloud: Voices From the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and Bum Rush the Page. With John Coltrane, Miles Davis, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Malcolm X as influences, Gaines has sought to connect music with his poetry, blending the two mediums whenever he performs. “My writing is rhythm, I am not concerned about contextually what’s happening,” he explains. “I’m trying to convey complicated emotions. I’m picking words for imagery and musicality. It’s not about word choice or wordplay or use of language, it’s about what words are musical. So my whole process is picking words that are musical enough for me to convey my emotion.”

Virtually all of Gaines’s poems have music behind them. His brother Calvin’s production company, Promiscuous Music, has worked with artists such as Destiny’s Child and Lady Gaga, often working with producer Mark Wilson. Another music producer brother, Phillip, known professionally as Michael Moog, collaborates with Reg and has worked with Tiffany and New Kids on the Block. “Being around these genius musicians, my family, they understand what I am trying to create. Just like Coltrane, they understand how to tell a story via their music. And I learned how to be a better writer listening to music,” Reg asserts. Calvin adds, “When we first saw Reg perform at the Nuyorican, we were shocked at how musical and nuanced his words were. That’s when we knew we wanted to collaborate in the studio. It’s been an incredible experience.”

Gaines gave poet-playwright Carl Hancock Rux his first opportunity to record. “It was on his album Sweeper Don’t Clean My Streets,” says Rux. “He had already had great success as a spoken word artist, was on his second album, and remained generous and connected to the community the entire time. That’s the model we all lived by at that time. Each one, teach one; each one, open the door for the other. Nuyorican Cafe cofounders Miguel Algarín and Lois Griffith and so many others taught us to nurture a community of poets and artists so we would contribute something to the world,” he continues. “No one was in it for themselves. I love Reg for that, and always will. He had remained the same person he was decades ago, building platforms for as many artists as he can.”

Gaines was crowned a Nuyorican “Grand Slam Champion” in 1991, an impressive achievement within the slam poetry community. Poet Katherine Arnoldi fondly recalls memories of losing to him. “At the Grand Slam, I made the mistake of throwing my big slam poem, ‘My Landlord,’ out early in the competition. The Nuyorican was packed that night and Reg was on fire, as he always is, making the words pop and swirl. He beat me with his ‘Air Jordan’ poem because he had the force and was using it for good! Nevertheless, 30 years later, to save a little face, I have to remind him he only won by a quarter of a point!”

National tours, a record deal with Mercury, and appearances on national TV shows such as The Arsenio Hall Show, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and MTV Unplugged soon followed. Says Holman, “Gaines was also an important dynamic in MTV’s decision to do ‘Spoken Word Unplugged,’ a precursor to Russell Simmons’s ‘HBO Def Poetry Jam’ of a few years later.” Black Flag’s Henry Rollins hosted the two MTV versions, which relied almost exclusively on the Nuyorican Poets Cafe poets. “Gaines’s ‘Air Jordans’ became a national dialogue,” says Holman. “With ‘Queen of the Scene’ Maggie Estep, he performed the first-ever televised poetry duet/duel, trading verses (and accusations) in ‘You’re Just Using Me for Sex.’ It was a defining moment—the MTV spotlight had stopped for a moment on the Cafe poets. Poetry was now officially cool.”

A highlight of Gaines’s career was performing poetry onstage with musician Eric Roundtree and Gaines’s brother Gordon for 150,000 people at Woodstock, in 1994. The event turned out to be the last performance Gordon and Reg collaborated on; Gordon died a short time later. “Reg once told me about Black poetry, that they will love you till they understand what you are saying, then they’ll want to kill you,” says Roundtree. “He is fearless.” And while these days lots of people are trying to become celebrities, posting content on TikTok and Instagram, Gaines had little interest in his brief brush with fame. When he was nominated for a Tony, he says, he was almost relieved when Rent creator Jonathan Larson won that year. “Had Larson not passed away, I would have won the Tony that year,” acknowledges Gaines. “But fame is all bullshit; any disappointment I felt disappeared five minutes later. I was on to the next project.”

Gaines is now expanding to directing, working on varied projects, including Jerry Quickley’s Live From the Front, Regie Cabico’s Straight/Out, and Marcella Goheen’s BLAK. Since 2007, he has been the artistic director of the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary of presenting new works highlighting contemporary urban culture. “My passion for theater started as a young boy when my grandma took my brothers and sisters to see plays. It opened my eyes and I wanted to work more in this medium,” he recalls. “I so enjoy encouraging young artists who have something to say.” Over the past 20 years, DUAF has presented nearly 300 new plays by over 200 emerging and established playwrights, including Dominique Morisseau, Martyna Majok, Nelson Diaz-Marcano, Carl Hancock Rux, Jessica Care Moore, Craig MuMs Grant, and Ming Peiffer.

“Reg E. was the first person to hear my voice and make it feel worth it,” says Diaz-Marcano. “Saw my style and told me my voice mattered. And when my work needed just a bit of help, he offered me the space and counsel to grow. I worked with [the festival] in 2013 before I got burnt out and decided to quit writing. A few years later, I decided to give it a try again and I trusted the festival with what I believed was my last chance. I won Best Play that year. Today, I am an award-winning published playwright, and I believe entirely if it weren’t for the encouragement and challenges that Reg gave me, I wouldn’t be here today.”  ❖

The 2022 festival will present four full-length plays and 12 one-acts, as well as an extended engagement of James Earl Hardy’s B-Boy Blues The Play, the festival’s centerpiece, directed by Stanley Bennett Clay. Festival performances will run from June 1 to 25 at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street).

Wednesday, June 1 at 8 p.m.
20th Anniversary, by Marcus Harmon
Set 20 years after the September 11 attacks, two firefighters meet to remember a friend, and reveal much about themselves and the world around them.
The Hard Knock Lyfe, by Cris Eli Blak
When a rapper is diagnosed with AIDS, he must reckon with masculinity, what it means to be a man of color, and repairing his relationship with his estranged daughter.

Thursday, June 2 at 8 p.m.
Socky Tells All, by Rollin Jewett
Andy is a young patient in a mental institution who has no intention of ever leaving. Nor does his best friend—a stuffed sock monkey.
The Palmist, by Sheila Duane
Fortune tellers predict the future, but are they really psychic? Can they sense a murderer with a single touch?

Wednesday, June 8 at 8 p.m.
Phantasmagoria, by Alethea Harnish
While in university-sanctioned quarantine, a young woman learns what it means to forsake her home, her family, and her religion to live in the devil’s playground: New York City.

Thursday, June 9 at 8 p.m.
Forever and a Day, by Marcus Scott
Triggered by viral videos of young Black people dying, a boy genius and his best pals embark on a journey to discover the Fountain of Youth, through which they believe they can circumvent and combat the rampant violence against young Black people.
The Love Not Together, by Jennifer Cendana Armas
L and K are absolutely in love with each other … and absolutely unable to get it together.

Wednesday, June 15 at 8 p.m.
Soul Survivor, by Alano P. Baez
A man imprisoned and sentenced to die contemplates the course of his life, the story of his beloved soul singer, Sam Cooke, and the history of Black oppression in America.

Thursday, June 16 at 8 p.m.
Run, by Elle
Rhythm and verse drive this contemporary opera about a woman who, after a rattling revelation, awakens from a deep sleep.
Adulting, by Amira Mustapha
Miriam is a 30-something Muslim woman who recently experienced a loss. While she is waiting for her mother to arrive, her friend Liz tries to help her cope. How will she navigate this loss? And more important, how the hell you put on a hijab?

Saturday, June 18 at 8 p.m.
For Colored Boyz, by Bryan-Keyth Wilson
For Colored Boyz on the verge of a nervous breakdown/When freedom ain’t enuff is an unabashed, unapologetic display of Blackness that speaks to the human heart from a Black man’s perspective.

Wednesday, June 22 at 8 p.m.
Midnight Mirage, by Zoe Howard
Two strangers encounter each other on a subway platform in the middle of the night. As time bends and warps, they discover what it means to connect.
The Good Cop, by Christin Eve Cato
Anita Jones, a journalist who dedicates her life to civil rights and justice, is about to help file a lawsuit that will change many Black and Brown lives forever. She needs another signature, and turns to an estranged friend, Jade Santiago, a police officer who abides by the blue wall of silence.

Thursday, June 23 at 8 p.m.
A Shot Rang Out, by Michael Hagins
A white police officer is trapped in a warehouse during an increasingly violent protest with a scared Black teen and a disgruntled schoolteacher.
Stoop, by Isa Guzman
Two people from different generations within a predominantly Latino community confront the difficulties of coming out as transgender. The play is a moment, a confrontation, between two characters who care for each other but don’t have the same understanding of the situation.

Saturday, June 25 at 8 p.m.
The Pride, by Joy
In the Baker home, God is first. And women are kings.

Tickets and information at duafnyc.com

Susan Lyn Hornik is an entertainment/lifestyle journalist who has written for the South China Morning Post, BBC.com, and the L.A. Times, among others. One of her poems appeared in Aloud: Voices From the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where she curated the Poets Erotica reading series.

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