Written by Yael Kiken
Elementary School Program Coordinator and Writing Coach at Thomson Elementary School
“I’m very excited to go to the Apollo Theater because people in their lifetime haven’t been there—and I’m small and I get to go there!”
These words were spoken as Dallas, whose Arts and Technology Academy DC SCORES team won first place at the Poetry Slam! in December, prepared to bring her individual poem to The Apollo Theater.
Last weekend, I joined Dallas O. and Akilae S. of Tubman Elementary School (the Shine Award winner from the Poetry Slam!) as they traveled to New York City to perform at the America SCORES National Poetry SLAM!, alongside poets from 14 other cities.
Saturday, April 9 – Exploring the Big Apple
Our trip began on Saturday morning at Union Station in a flurry of luggage and last-minute, good-luck wishes. Over Mad Libs and crossword puzzles, we got to know each other. A few hours—and trips to the snack car—later, we arrived in Manhattan!
As we emerged from Penn Station, both poets were awestruck by the surrounding towering skyscrapers. Both poets protested when I found a cab because they wanted to take photos of the bustle!
Exploring during the afternoon in a park near our hotel, we struck up a conversation with a couple. As luck would have it, they were in show business as actors and musicians and were delighted to hear that Dallas and Akilae were in town to perform! The adults were full of questions and ideas.
Their main piece of advice? “Move to New York!”
Over pizza and theater games back at the hotel, Dallas and Akilae got to know the other poet-athletes. By the end of the night, Akilae was playing tag with the poets from Boston and Cleveland, and Dallas was telling the San Francisco poet about her service-learning project.
Sunday, April 10 – Rehearsal day
At rehearsal the next morning (held at an America SCORES New York school), the poets practiced their individual poems, receiving feedback from their peers and directors. Everyone was wowed by the poised, punchy performance Dallas gave of her poem “I Have the Potential.” Akilae’s poem “The Speech” garnered a standing ovation—especially among the teenagers in the room.
They both had written articulately and forcefully about important issues in their communities. This caught the attention of all the other participants.
Sunday night, we were treated to a feast of pizza, pasta, soda and ice cream at Harry’s Italian. It was clear that friendships had developed throughout the day—the room was filled with the poets’ laughter and chatter.
Before bed, each poet in our room took a turn standing at her cot and reciting her poem. Monday was the big day!
Monday, April 11 – Showtime!
Monday morning, we took the bus to Central Park, where we divided into teams and went on a scavenger hunt, snapping photos of dogs and little-league teams. When we all were sufficiently tired, we hopped on the bus to the Apollo Theater.
Exploring The Apollo Theater was, for me, the most meaningful part of the trip. After we put our belongings in the dressing rooms (which were covered in signatures of famous musicians who had passed through), we were treated to a historical tour of the building.
Billy Mitchell, the tour guide, described how the African American community had developed in New York City, and the role of the Apollo as an important cultural hub. He listed off the musicians who had performed there, wowing us with names like Michael Jackson and Lauren Hill.
In a small theater on the side of the building, Mitchell described “Amateur Night," a regularly scheduled event at the Apollo at which budding poets, musicians and comedians perform. This is usually the first time they’ve performed at a major theater, and the response they get from the audience is crucial.
Many famous performers got their starts at Amateur Night, going from unknown teens practicing in their apartment living rooms to well-known stars who would go on to make deals with major record labels and perform at theaters all over the world.
Mitchell ran a mock “Amateur Night,” calling on student volunteers to perform. Before each one got onstage, he would create a back-story. For example, one was:
“This young lady used to sing backup in an all-girls trio. The group recently broke up because one started a family and the other one moved to Europe, so she is trying her hand at a solo career. Please give some love to our newest singing sensation, all the way from the lower east side ... DALLAS!”
Dallas then took the stage, singing a soulful rendition of an Alicia Keys song. The audience (of poets and chaperones) clapped, snapped photos and cheered in support!
The poets then went up to the top balcony and watched SLAM! host Martha Reeves (of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, a Motown group popular in the 1960s) practicing onstage. They danced and sang, suddenly aware of the historical importance—and sheer size—of the space.
You better believe the space was filled that evening. The National Poetry SLAM! began with “Dancin’ in the Streets” and the group poem, followed by speeches from America SCORES’ executive director and board chair.
Then each individual poet took the stage.
The poems covered topics ranging from immigration and standardized testing to crushes and friendship to imagination. Some performers did a few moments of improvisational stand-up; some were thoughtful and patient in reciting their poems; some used silly voices; some had choreography. All were poised and enthusiastic.
Reeves commented on different aspects of each poem, making sure each poet took the time to bow and enjoy the applause.
Afterward, the poets greeted audience members, snapped photos and signed programs. Over decadent desserts, poets shared how they had felt onstage.
“I was nervous when we were waiting on the side of the stage; onstage, though, I felt excited and prepared,” Akilae said.
When we boarded the bus, the performances weren’t over. Students took turns coming to the front of the bus and singing as we drove to the hotel. We were all filled with the energy and excitement of the night.
As a coach, it was thrilling to see these young poets join in the tradition of performers who have passed through the Apollo.