“Am I late?”
I didn’t stand when she walked in. I felt like I ought to. My heart almost jumped out of my chest – but I didn’t stand when she walked in. Instead, close to an hour after we had expected her, she moved into the lobby and to the ticket table I was tucked behind, and I felt a goofy, sparkly grin spread across my face.
And then I realized she was asking me something.
“Am I late?”
You’re 79 years old! I thought. You’re Sonia Sanchez! You can’t be late.
Instead, I gushed, “Oh no. No, no! You’re right on time.” Smooth.
A small smile. “Oh, alright then. Where do I go?” I mumbled something incomprehensible about “back there” or “down the hallway.” It was ambiguous because I didn’t really know where the musicians were. Thankfully, someone with more wits and fewer stars in her eyes did know where the lauded Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and legendary writer needed to go to prepare, and off she went.
Wow, she’s small. No, that’s not the correct word. But yeah, she’s short! And what a presence. Welcoming and intimidating all at once. Loved the jacket.
But, as is preferred when it comes to performers and artists, the best was yet to come. Really, if a performer is better next to you than on stage, there’s something off.
Later, listening to Sonia Sanchez perform her words with world-class jazz musicians Reggie Workman, Odean Pope, and Pheeroan akLaff, I realized I was witnessing a true artist. Four true artists. Hearing her honor Chinua Achebe, who had died two days before, was beautiful, moving. And the powerful performance of “Middle Passage,” with echoes from Odean Pope’s saxophone, created a moving musical conversation. Hearing this particular poem live was extraordinary.
Sanchez has explained in interviews that working with Odean Pope helped her go deeper, more fully into the experience of “Middle Passage.” To be able to witness these legends create a performance in spontaneous familiarity was unforgettable. Listen. I’m babbling because I have no words to convey the power of the evening. Watch it here – but know the subject matter could be a trigger for rape/assault:
This style of performance poetry isn’t for everyone. That’s for sure. But holy hell does Sonia Sanchez reading live make the meaning of the poem jump out and grab the audience by the throat. Sometimes we need a shock to the psyche to remind us what’s good. This was uncomfortable, thrilling, victorious, horrifying, cathartic. What art ought to be more often. And I’m so glad I was there.