Spoken Verb open mic gives students the floor for honest expression

A whiteboard behind the White Lecture Hall stage read “#Don’tBeNice,” a phrase that members of the audience shouted periodically at Spoken Verb's Fresh Page Open Mic last Friday, reminding the performers that conforming to the typical standard of politeness was less important than being honest.

“It’s a freeing atmosphere, where you can truly express yourself and your feelings and not be hindered by social constructs," said Spoken Verb Vice President Ashley Croker-Benn, a sophomore. "It’s a place where people can express themselves and their experiences on topics people don’t want to hear about.”

The first performance piece, titled “Orientation: Five Things They Don’t Want You to Know About Duke," provided a critical look at Duke’s community and policies, including an examination of the dissonance between the university’s stated stance towards diversity and the one often experienced by students. The piece was a group collaboration between the members of Spoken Verb’s executive board—Croker-Benn, junior Lara Haft, and seniors Yemi Adewuyi and Amy Wang. They performed the piece together, sometimes speaking alone, sometimes in pairs and sometimes in unison. The overlap of their voices echoed the themes of the piece, showing both diversity and unification.

Students not affiliated with the spoken word poetry group were encouraged to take the stage and present their own work after the opening piece. Those who performed included not only Spoken Verb event regulars, but also several first-year students performing for the first time. The pieces touched on a variety of sensitive topics, from racism and police brutality to mental illness and suicide. They showcased the ways in which the political and the personal are irrevocably intertwined, often speaking in the same breath about political ideas and personal experiences. 

Some poems referenced very specific recent events, often using them as a comparison point for their own experiences. Many poets chose to incorporate humor in the performances. A few even used music.

While the open mic section was taking place, all members of the audience collaborated to form a community poem. The piece was written on a piece of paper circulated through the room. All members of the audience were asked to write down whatever they wanted, whatever phrase or thought or idea was on their mind. When read aloud it turned out a hodgepodge of ideas going in a variety of directions, but it was remarkably coherent considering the number of contributors.

Overall, the open mic was an event focused on honest and unflinching presentation of the self and the reality of the world. It brought up many issues that people typically shy away from discussing, providing a space in which the culturally taboo could be addressed directly and honestly.

 “Spoken Verb is a very disruptive space," Croker-Benn said. "Nothing gets done until something changes.”

Adewuyi, who is Spoken Verb's president, summarized the group's purpose as “speaking loud and making moves in our community.”

The referenced community is not just the Duke community but also the wider community of Durham, as Spoken Verb has a history of partnering with local schools to provide the students a chance to express themselves.

“[It] gives people a chance to have a voice, not feel hindered and grow through reflection," Croker-Benn said.

Spoken Verb has many more events planned for the semester, including more open mic sessions and visits by prominent spoken word artists. They also have open general body meetings, the next of which is Sept. 24 in the Women’s Center.


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