Review: White House Poetry JamBy Mike Hale
Last night’s live Web cast ofpoetry and music from the White House probably established some precedents. I’m guessing that it was the first time anyone had said “placentas buried under avocado trees” in the East Room, at least in front of an audience.
The 45-minute musicale hosted by President and Michelle Obama — on the same day that news leaked that the Broadway producer Rocco Landesman would be Mr. Obama’s nominee for chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts — certainly looked as if it were meant to signal a new White House taste in the performing arts. All of the performers were either of color or married to Michael Chabon or Michael Chabon himself.
Spoken word dominated the 45-minute program, with performances by Mayda Del Valle (whose tribute to her abuela contained the placenta reference), Jamaica Osorio and Joshua Bennett. Other performers included Lin-Manuel Miranda, with what he claimed was the first song in a new musical about Alexander Hamilton; the jazz singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding, whose rendition of Lauryn Hill’s “Tell Him” was a high point; and James Earl Jones, hammy as ever, delivering Othello’s address to the Venetian senators. If Nashville and Austin were the most recent reference points for presidentially sanctioned entertainment, then the focus appears to have shifted to Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
The live broadcast began like a lot of other parties I’ve been to: late, dark, out of focus and with the (single, stationary) camera staring straight into a woman’s back. The production values improved, though the sound remained iffy: the louder people spoke, sang or played, the more likely they were to be drowned out by static. This was a problem on a bill that included poetry slammers, jazz singers and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Unfortunately, the spousal stand-up act of Mr. Chabon and Ayelet Waldman was perfectly audible, though mercifully the picture cut out completely a few times. A note was quickly posted on whitehouse.gov saying that a “full quality” recording would be up in a day or two.
The president began the program by introducing “the star of the show, somebody who brings a lot of poetry to my own life” and handed it over to Ms. Obama, perhaps signaling that the arts will be a part of her personal portfolio. She said that she had wanted to hear poetry and spoken word in the White House from Day 1 and hoped that the work would take audience members out of their comfort zones. It seems unlikely that that happened, unless they were people there who still didn’t have cable TV.
When the artists had left — Mr. Jones thanked the Obamas and then the whole crew exited stage left, moving quickly — the Web cast offered a small glimpse into White House life: a disembodied voice announced, “Please hold your exit until after the presidential party has departed.” Then the president hove into the frame, making chit-chat, just as the sound on the broadcast cut out.