Jammin’ in the East RoomBy Rachel L. Swarns
The candles flickered, the bassist strummed and, one by one, the writers and poets seized their moments in front of the microphone.
James Earl Jones served up Othello, his sonorous voice rumbling through the East Room. Mayda del Valle, a poet from Chicago, conjured her grandmother from Puerto Rico. Joshua Brandon Bennett, a poet from Yonkers, N.Y., delivered an ode to his deaf sister, his fingers flying as he translated his words into signs.
It was Tuesday night, time for the White House poetry jam. A pony-tailed disc jockey hovered over a pair of turntables in the hallway, guests sipped white wine and President Obama and his wife, Michelle, celebrated the power of the spoken word.
“We’re here to celebrate the power of words and music to help us appreciate beauty and also to understand pain,’’ Mr. Obama told the crowd.
Mrs. Obama urged her guests to “enjoy, have fun and be loose” as they absorbed performances from Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Jewish and African American writers in an event intended to showcase the diversity of American talent.
The crowd, which included the director Spike Lee and the television broadcaster George Stephanopoulos, among others, enjoyed the music of the pianist Eric Lewis and the bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding along with the writers. And while the poetry jam may well have been the hippest performance staged by the Obamas in the White House, it was just one of a series of events they have put on to celebrate the arts.
Since January, the Obamas have played host to bagpipe and mariachi bands, Irish fiddlers and poets, pop stars and jazz singers. Performers have included Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind and Fire, Tony Bennett and Fergie, the singer from the Black Eyed Peas.
Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet from Northern Ireland, has recited his verses. The rocker Sheryl Crow and the rhythm and blues singer Alicia Keys have entertained cheering crowds in the East Room.
“Our goal really is to bring the house alive,’’ said Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary. “We’re all American, but all of us come from different backgrounds. We want to expose Americans to other Americans that are doing brilliant work.’’
Laura Bush, the former first lady, also brought writers to the White House to highlight the works of Langston Hughes, Mark Twain and the women writers of the West and others. (Mrs. Bush was forced to cancel her poetry symposium in 2003, however, when it became clear that several participants planned to protest the war in Iraq.)
It is probably safe to say that Tuesday’s event may well have been the first White House poetry jam, the fast-paced presentation of spoken verse that has become popular among young people in cities across the country. (This should not be confused with a poetry slam, which is a poetry competition.)
Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, a young Hawaiian poet, talked about the struggles of finding her own identity, of living in her own skin. Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Tony-Award winning Broadway musical, “In the Heights” rapped his way across the stage.
The writers, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who are husband and wife, described how words break down barriers.
Ms. del Valle, the 30-year-old poet from Chicago, said she never dreamed that she would be invited to perform in the White House.
“To be able to go in the White House and to represent my grandmother and my ancestors, it really means a lot,” she said. “It’s a
generation of women that don’t often get heard, you know, these old Puerto Rican women that no one ever really thinks about. To be able to use my voice to represent them on this kind of platform is really powerful.”