By Julia Snyder
April is National Poetry Month, and the McCarl Coverlet Gallery helped SVC celebrate with a spoken word performance by Oni Lasana of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry. The performance was held over Zoom on April 16, and about 35 people attended from all over the country, including Minnesota, Louisiana, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Hawaii.
Dunbar, who lived from 1872 to 1906, was an African-American poet and fiction writer who rose to international prominence during his lifetime.
“He became the first African American to be accepted by the entire field of American Literature,” said historic site manager Laverne Sci, who participated in a Q and A session after Lasana’s performance. Sci works at the Paul Laurence Dunbar House Museum in Dayton, OH, where Dunbar lived his entire life.
Lasana did a dramatic recitation of 14 of Dunbar’s poems in the character of ’Lias’ Mother, a black woman enslaved on a Southern plantation at the time of the Civil War. In one of the poems, she pleads with her son, ’Lias, not to go off to war. In another poem, she grieves for her husband, who died in the war. Social commentary is a thread that runs throughout the poems, on themes as varied as pride, ignorance, religion, and injustice.
The poems Lasana performed were all written in Southern dialect, but Dunbar wrote in other dialects and in Standard English as well.
“He wrote in Irish dialect, he wrote in German dialect, he was an elevator operator and heard the different dialects of the people. He didn’t want to be as well known for dialect poetry, but he wrote beautiful poetry in standard English,” Lasana said. She described Dunbar’s work as “brilliant” and expressed that she loves his poetry more than anything she’s ever read.
Lasana first learned about Dunbar in 1991, when a friend invited her to learn his work with a theater group.
“The fact that I never knew about him got me interested,” Lasana said, explaining that she never read anything by the poet even throughout college. She has been presenting Dunbar’s work since 1994, and the character of Elias’ mother means a lot to her.
“Elias’ mother is everyone’s mother. She crosses boundaries,” Lasana stated.
After Lasana concluded her performance, she invited her audience to turn on their cameras and microphones and participate in reading a poem by Dunbar called “Sympathy,” which she set to hip hop music.
“Everyone unmute and show yourself,” Lasana commanded, and a spirited and chaotic exercise ensued.
Catriona Nelson, a senior computer science major, attended the performance for extra credit in her Digital Humanities class with Lauren Churilla, curator of the McCarl Coverlet Gallery.
“The performance was beautiful, and I think the fact that it was done over Zoom really added to the experience,” Nelson said. “As a video conference, it felt more personal and casual than a lot of other performances I've attended, like the audience was really part of the show.”
Saint Vincent has not seen the last of Lasana’s performances. The Coverlet Gallery is hosting her again on June 4, this time as “Mama Earth” in honor of World Environment Day.