Poet in da Corner

Debris Stevenson Feat. Jammz
Royal Court Theatre
Royal Court Theatre

Debris Stevenson ( Helen Murray pic)

Poet in da Corner blasts its way back into the Royal Court for a second run since 2018 where passion, music and intensely personal storytelling pumps out powerful messages through grime gig theatre.

The creator of the piece, Debris Stevenson, is a renaissance woman with talents ablaze, using multiple channels to transmit her message giving voice to the unheard: the disenfranchised in urban working class environments. She’s not just a phenomenal dancer, pumping out tightly wound, punchy bashment moves, akin to a boxer preparing to fight, but she’s also a grime poet, literary genius (in my view) dyslexic academic, queer ex-Mormon and social activist and teaches in schools.

Poet in da Corner was created as her personal journey from childhood in East London to awaking as an artist in her own right. Bullied at school, she buried herself in the library devouring poetry, clashing with her militant Mormon mum in East London, coming to terms with being dumped in the 'skankiest' state school in the borough and at the same time dealing with her sexuality. Then she discovered Dizee Rascal's grime album Boy in da Corner.

Angry grime music was taking off, lending voice to youth communities from deprived urban areas where street violence was common. For Stevenson, stumbling across artists like Dizzee offered a way out and most importantly the vehicle for her astounding creative abilities. Poet in da Corner is a powerful tribute to this album and its impact on Stevenson’s life.

The piece undoubtedly proves that Stevenson is a force to be reckoned with and such energy literally blasts the cobwebs out of any theatre space. There’s physical power and urgency through the spoken word of grime beat (or bar) and they tumble out of her like a lyrical waterfall with strong imagery. Then words turn staccato, delivered with the speed of an express train or a loaded gun spewing its pellets. The frustration is raw and palpable.

The stage feels like an immersive club night more than a performance. There’s something about the way Stevenson addresses the audience that makes you feel like she’s talking to you one on one. The politics comes from the personal, an identification of being a white performer appropriating a black language, a sense of isolation and the lack of social mobility in education. It’s all there, but it doesn’t scream out and sledgehammer the audience to submission.

There are only four performers. Stacy Abalogun and Kirubel Belay double up as MCs and other characters from Stevenson’s life from brothers to lovers. There’s a masterful interpretation of Stephenson’s militant mum from Abalogun, who clearly has killer instinct written into her part as she stealthily takes a milk bottle from the fridge, stuffs a cushion over her son’s face and keeps pouring as punishment for swearing at the table.

While the rapper and DJ Jammz is SS Vyper, the friend who introduced Stephenson to grime in the first place. We first hear SS Vyper from the top of the auditorium, heckling from above, only to be escorted onstage where he, funnily enough, sits in the corner observing the show.

He is black and Stevenson is white. He accuses her of stealing his shtick. They met at school and through their teenage friendship, the show razor-sharp on the aspects of what it means for a white girl using the music of black people to explore her angst, an issue that’s front of mind in Stevenson’s story.

Minimal props keep things simple, apart from two neon-lit crucifixes that wouldn’t look amiss in Jesus Christ Superstar, and they are wheeled out when Stevenson's mum appears on stage while the on-stage sound system booms out relentlessly in true gig theatre style.

The movement, choreographed by Aaron Sillis, is powerful, especially in the scene where Debris remembers her first sexual experiences with a girl from school. She begins to melt to the floor, moving from bashment to contemporary dance.

Ola Ince's psychedelic, fast-paced production doesn’t stop moving. It’s loud, brash and confrontational. As an elderly lady nods off in a fur coat in the row in front, it’s heartening to see that, despite this being wrapped up in the language of youth culture, the audience is clearly multigenerational and multicultural. It feels important that such a performance can transcend age, class and gender barriers.

During a phase in our history where cultural unity has never felt more polarized both politically and culturally, Poet in da Corner feels like a timely show. Not only does it shine a light on such issues, but it is so optimistically inclusive, surely one of Stevenson’s aims.

After 70 minutes of fiery sound, stories and movement, audiences are beckoned to join in and need no convincing. The grime gig is on a roll, the energy is pumping, people are dancing and pointing to the performers cheering them on with loud “yes’s”. For a moment I forget about the theatre completely, feeling such empathy for Stevenson and her world that appears so viscerally present. We are in it together, sharing her angst alongside her and I'm ready to watch it all over again.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

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