The stage can be a frightening space, but it is equally a cathartic one. Each time an artiste – a dancer, a singer, a poet – offers an original piece of work to their audience, they are placing themselves in a position to be judged. It is a vulnerable place to be and in a world where we are conditioned to believe that vulnerability is weakness, it takes courage to position ourselves as such. On Sunday last, it was this courage that came through on stage.
The first time I heard Deneka Thomas’s poetry, it was as a judge at the finals of the First Citizens National Poetry Slam competition in 2018. Her performance, to be cliched, was electric! It was inevitable that she would cup the first prize. This time, as a member of the audience at her debut performance Premature, I listened without the obligation of a rubric – (although at the competition even the rubric did not prevent us from feeling an emotional upsurge) – and with the ears of someone who had simply attended to support and listen. She gave, as she had given in 2018, a performance that remained with me for days, a performance that I felt should have been witnessed by a lot more individuals than those that had attended the Little Carib Theatre that evening.
Spoken word, a performance art that combines the pen of the poet and the exploration of the depths of memory and experience through voice inflection and intonation, finds a young, dynamic performer in Deneka Thomas. The selection of poets who joined her onstage, complemented the performance, holding their ends as performers. Onstage, Muhammad Muwakil, the voice of God and Time, in a sense injected a sense of time – the coming together of a veteran poet with a new generation now striving towards making their own mark on the local landscape.
One saw on stage that evening, a group of poets in sync with and fully supportive of the efforts of one of their peers. It was in no small degree an admirable scene and one that also speaks to the nature of the spoken word community. As if to demonstrate this sense of unity, Thomas’ process which was discussed after the performance, in her talk-back with the audience, was illuminating. Each poet had written pieces as if he/she were Thomas, giving her experience a voice through their words. Kyle Hernandez, for instance, who opened the show with Thomas was selected for this piece because of the similarity of both poets’ experiences of their fathers. As such, he was best suited to write and articulate the experience.
The poetry, tapestries of sound, stitched together by the ebbs and flow of language – punctuation, breath, silence, enjambment – created evocative pieces that placed centre stage, deeply personal issues that were now on public display. The work was visceral, not dressed up, not pretentious. Her words emerged from a genuine place of seeking, a young girl coming to terms with various aspects of herself – her relationship with her father, acknowledging the strength of her mother, her sexual orientation – as she attempts to locate herself within this world.
I wish that I could have committed to memory every piece performed, but despite the lack of a photographic memory, what remains is a sense of something new forming itself among us. While spoken word has been on the scene for a long time, perhaps it is the female voice that now adds another dimension to the art. This is a female voice that speaks of the experience of gang warfare, of guns and violence, very male worlds that invade her space. She also identifies as queer, an experience too that finds expression in her poetry, the skilful exploration of which had won her the Grand Slam in 2018 when she introduced the uses of a "closet". An issue that is now more publicly discussed, it is nevertheless one that is rarely, if at all, spoken of in this performance art locally. This is an artiste courageous enough to declare herself on a public stage even if she might be afraid of the reception to her declarations. The strength of her poetry is her willingness to speak on issues – personal, private, taboo sometimes – and remain unapologetic in her explorations.
If, as a lyricist I had heard two years ago, "A word has meaning based on the company it keeps", then Deneka Thomas has ably created unions that have produced deeply thought-provoking work. Though intensely personal, it is this very quality that urges us all to embrace our vulnerability and strive to live our fullest lives.