Octagon is constructed beautifully, layered with meaning and a pure heart that pulses readily throughout the production. Nadia Latif’s direction is tight, spinning Kristiana Rae Colón’s difficult text into a convincing piece of theatre. The play is a behind the scenes look at the world of poetry slams and its participants – eight poets from Chicago, representing “The Junction” poetry bar, are set on a path to compete at the National Poetry Slam Competition.
Carrying on the Arcola’s long tradition of promoting diverse voices, the cast of Octagon are filled with frenetic and nuanced energy. Each member riffs off each other, simulating a real life poetry jam session. Poetry slams are infused with the spirit of rap and tricky jazz-like rhythms where poets work to find something – anything – that works. The actors created a sense of spontaneity from scripted dramaturgy – you really feel like you’ve fallen into the audience of an epic poetry battle in the Arcola’s warehouse interior. While the whole cast worked well together, a couple of performances stood out. Laura Rossi played an elegant Prism. Her natural athleticism translated into feral energy. She became the narrative’s lynchpin, throttling it towards its climactic peak. Frustrated and irrepressibly young Palace, played by As an N’Jie, is a crowd favourite with his comedic turns of phrase balanced against the sense that he was knocking at the door of that something more that he believes poetry should engender.
Slam poetry is at its heart a spectator sport, one where interaction is a key ingredient to it power. “Points are not the point,” The Watcher Named Pen declares. But in some sense, neither is poetry. Poetry without audience are shots in the dark. Latif fuses Colón’s powerful words with equally powerful physicality, and draws the audience in. The sounds and light design, while sparse, help to make you believe this is an arena, like the Coliseum, where poets do battle. The weakest point of the play was probably its attempt to be too many things at once. It’s overburdened by the myriad topics it wants to discuss: blackness, war, peace, identity, shame, fame, poverty, truth, storytelling, and the list goes on. These are themes that entire plays are built upon, not the bricks of a singular production. Was the documentary angle necessary? It felt thrown into the ring for the fun of having The Watcher snap about condescendingly at non-existent directors.
Octagon interrogates the relationship between words and action. This is not a poetry night, at the end of the day. It’s theatre, which in some ways claims more rights to reality than poetry does. The actors are physically interwoven into the fabric of theatre, not only their voices. This relationship is realised with devastating effect with Prism’s loss of voice. Poets may play with words, but words are just words. For all the poets’ bravura and confidence soaked proclamations about what life is and isn’t, they are naive to the facts of the real world. The dim Junction scenes, cut through occasionally by purple strobe lights, are all spectacle and posturing. Everyone is an abstraction, as only poetry can deal with. Amidst the original Junction clan, Prism many things: a female voice, a trophy, a goddess, an abused woman, an escaped shadow, the voice isolated. She is never just a woman. Atticus is the most abstract concept of them all, cheaply drawn and made of simple equations that never follow a believable logic. It is little wonder than he and Prism and drawn together so closely, and their conversations become difficult tangles of ghostly ideas and smoke. Colòn’s text implies the obfuscation and shadowing that occurs amidst the world of slam – it’s not very different from the world of theatre. Truth, when we dress it up in lights and pour them out of the mouths of actors, becomes lost.