In "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," poets Langston Hughes and Gil Scott-Heron get due respect alongside rappers Tupac Shakur and Chuck D. But there is no mistaking that hip hop comes first in this theatrical version of an HBO series, which opened yesterday at the Longacre Theatre. With a mult-culti cast of nine young spoken-word artists, the night of poetry, stories and beats sounds like an authentic shout from the streets. The performers use their words as crowbars, attempting to pry open the door to America's pancultural scene. It opens just a crack, but this two-hour glimpse is broader and more honest than most of what the traditional media have done. "I want to hear the poem about the Jamaican Rastaman who has never smoked weed," says Staceyann Chin in the show's opening number. "I want every poem to be about me," adds Beau Sia. For the most part, the poets present their work individually, standing before a set of stylized stoops and doorways. But occasionally, they collaborate in groups of two or three, as do Chin and Black Ice on "Jammin'," a tribute to Jam Master Jay, Bob Marley and other artists who have been caught up in violence. While a deejay named Tendaji spins records in the interludes, the performers - unlike rappers - recite without accompaniment. Their rhymes and phrases set the beat without music, allowing us to hear more clearly each poet's style. While much of today's rap is dominated by hyperbolic violence, sexuality and boasting, these audacious new voices present a far more subtle world-view. Outrage is tempered with humor. Bleakness is leavened by joy. "We are everywhere," proclaims Sia in "The Asians Are Coming, the Asians Are Coming."
"Programming your Web sites and making your executives look smart and getting into your schools for free. There's no shutting me up until the egg roll is recognized as American food."
Whether the topic is domestic violence, racial profiling or the insidious threat of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, the issues are always given a human face here. While the message of tolerance is hardly new, the specificity in the poets' stories raise them above stereotypes. Among the standouts in the cast are Sia, who intentionally sabotages his fauxaggressive stance with self-effacing humor. Mayde Del Valle turns her mother's kitchen - "she could turn Spam into filet mignon" - into a forum for cultural pride. The performer called Poetri is consistently moving in his absurdist tales about heartbreak and money troubles. At one point he announces: "No longer will I try to look my best for women who don't know I'm in love with them - from now on, I'm dating myself."
While there are a few poems that lack bite, "Def Poetry" makes fusty old Broadway an outlet for genuine voices from the city's culturally diverse neighborhoods. If producer Simmons can bring a new audience to the Longacre - he's set ticket prices lower than those at most Broadway houses, but higher than at Nuyorican Poets Cafe - he will again have ushered a new form of urban expression into the American mainstream.
Poetry is alive and well at the Longacre Theatre. Indeed, it's alive and kicking like a mule. "Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," which opened last night, is one of those indefinable creatures that turns up occasionally, challenging our concepts of what is theater and even what is Broadway.
To call it a poetry recital would be like calling a prizefight an argument.
It's more a poetry slam, a kind of hip-hop bardic contest, where the nine poet-performers, occasionally accompanied by music from a DJ, pound out street poetry of power, humor and humanity.
The show has been devised by Simmons - record entrepreneur, founder of Def Jam Records, so-called godfather of hip-hop, head of Phat Farm clothing, friend of the famous and TV impresario - who clearly knows a good idea when he has one.
What he has brought to Broadway is a development of his HBO late-night TV show "Def Poetry." Simmons, obviously noting the new verbal intensity of hip-hop and rap, has pushed beyond the music and heard the raw vernacular poetry beneath its tough, rough skin.
It is this that he - and his concept collaborator and director, Stan Lathan - are offering here: a torrent of words, words of the young and urban dispossessed, words that are funny, bitter, violent, mawkish and, yes, garishly theatrical.
The poets, no shrinking violets, are performers strutting their stuff with the uneasy confidence of stand-up comedians and the nifty wordplay of Shakespearean clowns.
They are children of their time, for all seasons and all races. There is Beau Sia, an angry young Asian from Oklahoma; the diamond-brilliant Philadelphian Black Ice; a deliciously liberated Jamaican lesbian, Stacyann Chin; and a tub-thumping yet ironic white protest poet, Steve Colman.
Mayda Del Valle can make sexy poetry out of a kitchen monologue; Georgia Me is a big, gorgeous black woman flaunting it; a black Palestinian/American, Suheir Hammad, proves gracefully sensuous; Lemon, the show's most accomplished performer, is as fast on his feet as he is quick with his tongue; and finally the comic Poetri, a hefty guy beefing against Krispy Kreme Doughnuts as a white conspiracy "to keep the black man down and round."
With its appeal to a young, hip audience, already attracted in force, and a fairly modest ticket prices - $25 to $65 - "Def Poetry Jam" could be around on Broadway for a long time.
Does Con Edison know about the cast of ''Def Poetry Jam''? The performers on the stage of the Longacre Theater, where the show opened last night, are giving off enough electric current to keep Manhattan in air-conditioning for a century of summers. The hard-working choruses of musicals like ''Thoroughly Modern Millie'' and ''42nd Street'' can dance until their shoes lose their taps, but they still won't generate the energy found in this gathering of angry young poets.
''Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway,'' to use the production's full brand-name-wearing title, is the most singular offering in mainstream New York theater these days, even in a season that has seen such anomalies as ''Movin' Out,'' Twyla Tharp's all-dancing, no-talking pop musical, and the short-lived French bagatelle called ''Amour.''
Produced by the eponymous Mr. Simmons, the mighty rap recording emperor, ''Def Poetry'' is basically nothing more than nine people standing onstage reciting poems they have written. But this description, which summons clammy images of the classroom, fails to factor in the incandescent mix of exuberance, arrogance and exhibitionism with which each performer is invested.
The poets of ''Def Poetry'' flaunt their words the way Fosse dancers flaunt their bodies, in muscle-flexing struts, slides and sashays. Listen to the following declarations: ''I wanna hear a poem where ideas kiss similes so deeply that metaphors get jealous.'' ''I'm the mentally buff Chinese Hulk Hogan/ disciplined, determined and deadly.''
And, ''Spoken word is about to leave the ground like a plane, chain ganging, clanging like a school boy with a pan.''
These lines, like most in the show, sound better than they read. You need to experience firsthand the body language that makes the verbal language spin and the voices that seem to get high off their own inflections. This is poetry for the stage, not the page, and it exists completely only in the moment it is being performed.
People can complain that much of what is said in ''Def Poetry Jam'' is aggressively preachy, on the one hand, and narcissistically whiny, on the other. But don't let anyone tell you it's not theater.
Directed by Stan Lathan with a keen ear -- and, almost as important, eye -- for flow and variety, ''Def Poetry'' is descended from the HBO television specials of the same title. These in turn featured talent culled from the cafes, theaters and cultural centers that stage slams, competitive shows that turn the performance of poetry into an athletic event.
(Such places, which range from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City to Da' Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles, are cited regularly in the performers' biographies, which are, it can safely be said, unlike any others found in a Playbill these days.)
You can put aside, however, any doubts that the particular skills on display in ''Def Poetry Jam'' require the intimacy of a club or the magnifying closeness of a television screen. All of the performers are radioactive with stage presence, conferred partly by the hormonal glow exclusive to the young and unwrinkled, partly by polemical righteousness and partly by the immortal showbiz urge to show off.
The production, which takes place against Bruce Ryan's abstract streetscape of a set, begins with the D.J. Tendaji Lathan spinning, scratching and mixing records from the 1960's to the 21st century. He finds the warmth in being cool, and he gets the audience's responsive juices flowing without seeming to push for it. He also sets up a throbbing pulse, a sort of freewheeling metronome for what will follow.
Yet while they trade freely on the rhythmic reflexes made popular by rap and hip-hop, the performers who slink and saunter into view don't just roll along in familiar grooves. Steve Colman, the show's token white-bread performer, may exclaim, ''Rock 'n' roll's O.K./but hip-hop is for the ages.'' But Black Ice, who dispenses evangelical admonitions with charismatic casualness, dares to suggest that the luxury-loving lyrics of some rap songs are more addictive and dangerous than crack.
The show also features spirited homages to singers and musicians, from Sam Cooke and Tito Puente (zestily performed by Mayda Del Valle and Lemon) to Jam Master Jay, the Run-DMC disc jockey who was shot to death last month. But while musical idols like Bob Marley and Prince (as well as poets like Langston Hughes and June Jordan) are invoked, the show has little of the studiously imitative gloss found among singers on talent shows like ''American Idol.''
The poets all, for good or ill, exude self-created styles, which are as distinctive as fingerprints. Rhyme and rhythm define character in ''Def Poetry Jam''; they are the tools for extracting a shape out of the muddle of social, ethnic and physical forces that make human identity. The form of poetry becomes a defense against formlessness.
To quote Staceyann Chin, a rail-thin Jamaican with a fat head of hair:
Imagination is the bridge between
the things we know for sure
and the things we need to believe when our world becomes unbearable.
It allows Ms. Chin, who says that believing ''in any God takes guts,'' to create a liturgical, magically intoned credo of ''the smaller things'' in which she can believe.
Poetry also becomes the vehicle that lets a bulky, light-footed man named (yes) Poetri, in times of stress, turn himself into Michael Jackson (whose last name conveniently rhymes with ''relaxin' '').
''My words,'' as described in a collaborative poem for three voices, are variously ''a reflection of possibility'' (for Georgia Me), ''the Chinese tornado'' (for Beau Sia) and ''a flag'' (for Suheir Hammad).
There is, you should know, a lot of flag waving in ''Def Poetry Jam.'' Diatribes against oppressors -- white running-dog capitalists in general and George W. Bush and his associates in particular -- figure prominently, and their content isn't much different from the grievance lists of outraged students of the late 1960's. An exception is Poetri, the show's droll natural comedian, who finds a Ku Klux Klan-like conspiracy against the black man among the makers of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Over all, the quotient of earnestness is definitely higher than that of irony, which is kind of refreshing. For all the didacticism in ''Def Poetry,'' there's a thrill in seeing young people actually work up steam about the sorry state of the world, not just their sexual unattractiveness and weight problems, although there's a certain amount of that as well.
And if it's content that makes ''Def Poetry'' worthy, to use a cringe-making word, it's style that makes it entertainment. And it's the diversity of styles, in artful counterpoint, that keeps the production flying. Some of the poems, like Ms. Me's first-person narrative about a beaten wife, have the ripping and sentimental narrative verve of an old broadsheet ballad (the same style that is wittily rehashed by Lemon in an account of an unexpected survivor of the Titanic).
In literary terms, the statuesque Ms. Hammad, who describes herself as a black woman who has become a Palestinian, and the wiry Lemon are probably the most accomplished writers, with their gifts for slyly changing and mixing cadences and tones. But literary values are secondary here, and they don't account for the hypnotic, incantatory music that Ms. Chin brings to her description of lovemaking or the militant aestheticism that Mr. Sia transmits with his kung fu dandy poses.
Mr. Lathan, the director, has paced ''Def Poetry'' with thematic intelligence and old-fashioned showmanship, seasoning the evening with poetic duets and trios as well as the expected arialike solos. For the show's finale, all the performers are allowed to let rip at the same time, and the Babel of voices that emerges is eerily powerful.
What you're hearing is a noise that seldom echoes through the dusty corridors of Broadway anymore. It's the sound of youth expressing itself, at its most intense and anxious and self-conscious and self-delighted. Older folks may find it all a little intimidating and even irritating. But how nice to smell springtime in the land of mothballs.
To say that Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam isn't your grandmother's Broadway show would be an understatement.
For starters, Grandma probably hasn't checked out the HBO series on which the production is based, created by hip-hop mogul Simmons as a vehicle for performance poets influenced by contemporary music and social concerns. And she probably hasn't listened to the CDs or attended the "poetry slams" that have helped make such artists an integral part of urban culture.
But Def Poetry Jam, which opened Thursday at the Longacre Theatre, promises something that should be exciting to theater fans of all ages: a chance to see fresh talent reflecting a variety of perspectives.
That variety is, however, wider in some cases than in others. The performers make up a diverse group on paper, from an Oklahoma City-bred Asian-American guy who considers himself "the mentally buff Chinese Hulk Hogan" to a New York-based Jamaican gal who revels in sensuous odes to women's bodies. The subject matter is similarly varied, encompassing the ridiculous and the sublime.
But the more stringent social commentary tends to strike one note, and it's a predictable one. However superficially controversial their views, all adhere neatly to the rules on which political correctness is founded: 1) Insults are most acceptable when directed toward your own social or ethnic group or, even better, a group perceived as more empowered. 2) Preaching is easiest when you're facing the choir.
A flagrant example is a bit called "Terrorist Threat," ranted by the gracelessly earnest Steve Colman, who argues that the real danger confronting our country lies in a government led by a "crackhead president" and corporate pigs whose factories exploit little girls in Asia and Haiti. Even if you agree, dissing George W. Bush to arts-loving Manhattanites is about as bold as condemning the ACLU at a GOP pep rally.
Other performers are more poised and self-effacing, particularly "Poetri," a rotund imp who offers funny insights into everything from bachelorhood to doughnuts. And the rhythmic panache of their rhymes is enhanced by the buoyant hip-hop and old-school R&B tunes spun by DJ Tendaji Lathan.
Yet for all its exhilarating aspects, a moody air hangs over Def Poetry Jam. Certainly, there should be room for criticism and anger here. But it's ironic that a show designed to reward progressive voices includes so much sulking about the free society that spawned it.