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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005 07:30 am

Bringing the word

How Expressions in the Dark became one of Springfield’s most successful artistic efforts, and a place for a city to come together

Founder of Expressions in the Dark: Kimberly Moore, Ben Hale, and Dwayne Bess
The dimly lit performance hall pulses with a quiet beat. Men and women wearing their best “I just can’t help looking cool” attire make their way around the room — walking, talking, moving with the rhythm. At each table, a single candle illuminates the faces around it, and in this light, everyone looks good. This is a place to see and be seen, to hear and be heard. This is Expressions in the Dark. A vintage hipster steps to the microphone. Poised in a black leather beret and matching jacket, he hushes the hissing chatter from the crowd with his smooth voice. For five minutes, the man leads the gathering on a trip from lightheartedness to heartbreak — a roller coaster the crowd will ride many times this evening. One by one, performers take the stage. Some are so good that the audience trades in tired snaps for all-out wails and standing ovations. A few are so bad that the erratic clapping that greets their efforts shows the spectators’ generosity. One woman recounts the act of making love so sensuously that the crowd erupts in search of a cold shower. This is a poetry reading? William Shakespeare would roll over in his grave, and maybe he should. Shakespeare was never one to miss a good party. EITD draws a crowd of about 100 through the doors of the Club Room at the Hoogland Center for the Arts on the first Friday of each month. Patrons pay a $10 cover charge to attend these spoken-word events, and they bring their friends when they return. With modest press coverage and minimal advertising, EITD — now inching toward its second anniversary — has used word of mouth, a long e-mail list, and the unique synergy of its three founders to grow into the quietest little artistic success story in Springfield.
It’s difficult to describe an EITD event. Tony Muse, also known as DJ Tone, brews an organic stew of hip-hop, soul, old-school funk, and R&B, but EITD isn’t a concert. You can get beer, wine, or a mixed drink at the bar, but EITD isn’t a club. Some of the artists address God, but EITD isn’t church. Will Mitchell, a Springfield poet and longtime EITD regular, says that the happy medium is one reason for the event’s ever-growing popularity. “In my experience with Springfield, you can either go to a club or bar, or a church,” Mitchell says. “Expressions in the Dark provides an in-between social activity that people can do.”
Mitchell caught the buzz on his first visit. He came planning to watch, but the energy of the room and the poets performing there inspired him to sign up for the open-mic segment. The list of performers is growing; 15 to 20 artists are performing each month now. Many EITD regulars are seasoned practitioners of the spoken-word craft; guest artists are sometimes nationally known on the quasi-underground spoken-word scene. What is spoken word? It is the dramatic performance of poetry — but it’s not as simple as reading the words from the page. Dr. Marcellus Leonard, poet-professor of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield and an EITD performer, says that the origins of spoken word can be traced to Africa, where orators called griots memorized tribal history. The griot’s job was to recite the story to anyone who requested it. “Recitation was a kind of mnemonic device to help people to remember important details, but it also became an aspect of . . . relating religious concepts and doctrines, folklore stories, and, eventually, entertainment,” Leonard says. “If we leap thousands of years and come even to the point of slavery, we find a lot of these exciting stories and folklore coming with the people to the United States and being told even among them as they were slaves.”
The civil-rights movement has given birth to such poets and speakers as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, H. Rap Brown (known for his rapid-fire speech), Don Lee (later known as Haki Madhubuti, a great poet of the 1970s), and the Last Poets. These performers have inspired the genres of hip-hop and spoken word, which continue to mesh and influence each other even as they flourish on their own. “I think rap has given rise to spoken word, which is something entirely different from rap yet is still associated with it,” Leonard says. “Spoken word does not depend on a soundtrack or outside rhythm; the rhythms are incorporated into the words themselves.”
Spoken word has been a major component of the African-American underground art scene since gaining mild popularity in large cities during the early-1990s and, later, some mainstream success with the introduction of HBO’s Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam. Some people have the talent; some people don’t. “I think I can make the comparison to singers,” Leonard says. “There are people who just can sing and haven’t had any formal training and people who have had a lot of training and know exactly when to hit the beat and know exactly what note and just don’t have the voice.”
Expressions in the Dark has a similarly diverse ancestry. In January 2004, Ben Hale, 30, began hosting an open-mic hip-hop event, the Holla Back Jam, at the Funny Bone. When he moved the event to Club 217, Hale enlisted the help of Dwayne Bess, 27, an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother of Hale’s from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and a recent Springfield transplant. Although the Holla Back Jam drew decent turnouts, Bess says, “We were sort of losing money.”

The pair decided to take a chance on bringing the spoken-word concept to Springfield. Sound crazy? Not to these two. Both Hale and Bess had been writing and performing poetry for years. Hale started composing verse in the early 1990s and, in 1996, headed for Atlanta, where he joined a group of poets and started performing spoken word. His style shows an obvious hip-hop influence, and Hale, the son of a preacher, notes, “There’s obviously going to be spirituality.”
Bess wrote poetry for two years before he began performing it in 1997. He started an event in St. Louis called Feel the Vibe and, he says, developed a real passion for it. When Bess and Hale first joined forces, the events were more of a financial endeavor for the former and more of a community-building venture for the latter. “I think the great thing within the first six months of Ben and I working on the event . . . we actually sort of traded principles,” Bess says. “When I saw that people were interested in [spoken word], when I saw that this was something they have a hunger for, it makes you react and say, ‘Yeah, this is why I’m doing it.’ ”
Ditching the Holla Back Jam moniker in favor of Expressions in the Dark, the pair moved the event to Stella Blue, an upscale club in downtown Springfield that made a better-spoken word venue. One night in September 2004, Kimberly Moore wandered in. Moore, 36, a Springfield native, had been traveling to St. Louis for three years to participate in that city’s flourishing spoken-word poetry scene. When she heard about Expressions in the Dark, she went to Stella Blue, where she was surprised to find Hale, an old friend, in charge. Moore had been trying to bring St. Louis poets up to Springfield to present shows. Moore talked with Hale, then Bess and Moore got together for lunch, and she was hooked. 
“Through working on something that she wanted to work on, we sort of sucked her in,” Bess says. “We sort of stole her away form her own ideas — and, you know, before you know it, she was connected and started doing some of the public relations and marketing with us.”
Moore was the final piece Hale and Bess needed to take Expressions to the next level. Now they had a team that covered all the bases. Hale, a self-proclaimed numbers man, enjoys working the business angle. Bess handles the logistics of the events. Moore takes care of the marketing because, as she puts it, “I know everyone and their mama.” With an e-mail invitation list of more than 500, she can get the word out with just a few taps and a click. “We’ve never been in the newspaper, we’ve only been on the radio because we purchased advertisement, and we’ve only done that like twice,” Bess says. “Everything has been on [e-mail], fliers and word of mouth. When you take a look at it though, the marketing scheme we have set up does work.”
Ensconced at Stella Blue, EITD began drawing poets from Bloomington, Decatur, Peoria, St. Louis, and Chicago — even Atlanta — to share their talent and to network. But then one Friday EITD found a new home because Stella Blue was double-booked, Moore says. With just hours to find a space, Bess looked all over Springfield, and around 1:30 p.m. he found an open spot: the Club Room at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Moore, a claims analyst at the Teachers’ Retirement System, hustled to the Hoogland after work to get the place looking sharp by 9 p.m., when the crowd would start rolling in. “Everyone we heard that came [that evening] said, ‘Oh yeah, we like this better,’ ” Moore says. “[The Club Room] had the New York feel, the Chicago feel.”
Since December, nearly all EITD shows have been held in the Club Room. The Nov. 4 show will take place at Northfield Center, in conjunction with the UIS Hip-Hop Symposium. When the three promoters sat down to put their goals for Expressions in the Dark on paper, their lists looked similar: All were seeking bigger, better, more ambitious shows. They’re experimenting with theme shows after successful evenings of all female and all male performers, dubbed Ladies of Expressions in the Dark and Men of Expressions in the Dark, respectively. They’ve got plans for Expressions Back in the Day (an old-school night) and Expressions Inspired by Grace (a spirituality-inspired evening). “We want to do something different to get more people, more ethnicities. It’s a diverse crowd of people and it’s a diverse crowd of poets, even though the majority of them are African-Americans,” Moore says. “I’m, like, ‘I know there are more than just black people who do poetry.’”
In addition to spoken-word events, Moore, Bess, and Hale hope to offer more events like A Mother’s Cry, a play written and directed by Joel King that the trio presented this summer. “I think Springfield would really enjoy a larger-scale production if they bought into it,” Bess says. “We’ve given them a taste of it; we’ve gotten a following; people know that spoken word and live music is out there.”
“[Our crowd] grows every time we have the event,” Moore says. “This is the thing that really blows my mind: We have our regular people, but we have a different crowd every time we have a show.”

At one EITD show, the audience gets everything from the profound poetry of Dr. Leonard to passionate rhymes about home and Mother, police and racism, gangs and God, sex and hip-hop. One poet sings a poignant ode to New Orleans. A girl group performs a radio-ready dance tune. An older white woman belts out a Whitney Houston song. Oliver Jackson, a Decatur poet known onstage as Ambitious, presents a spiritually inspired freestyle performance in a rapid-fire delivery that suggests the origin of his stage name. The self-proclaimed “aggressive angel warrior” performs around the state but says that Expressions in the Dark is one of the best spoken-word events he has attended. Another performer, the Rev. Carey Grady of St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Decatur, steps onstage for only the second time and delivers a few slice-of-life stories about family. He says he heard about Expressions from a friend and enjoys coming out for the clean vibe. During some shows, Bess and Moore act as onstage hosts, Moore playing the role of a calming, nurturing, sometimes scolding mother, and Bess working the crowd with his playful demeanor and dapper good looks. Moore may sing a bit as she introduces the next guest; Bess, clad in a sharp suit, may recite verse he’s composed with refrigerator magnets. Hale stays busy offstage, working out the kinks of the show as it unfolds. Most participants perform either spoken word or poetry, but hip-hop also has its place. “Hip-hop artists are more than willing to come to the poetry, and they have — this is not a shoot-’em-up bang-bang type of thing,” Hale says. “If you want to talk to the ladies, you can do that — but if you are not bringing anything uplifting, it’s not the venue for you.”
Aside from that caveat, everyone who makes it to the mic gets love. EITD’s vibe is nothing if not nurturing. “I’ll tell you this right now: You are not going to get booed,” Hale says. “In the worst-case scenario, there will be dead silence, and that’s definitely not going to happen because you always have a few people clapping.”
Sometimes a performer gets unorthodox positive feedback: At the October event, the woman warbling Whitney Houston looks out over the audience and sees a sea of swaying cell phones, held open and aloft by their owners to send her a wavy blue glow of approval. “For the most part, [the audience] pumps you up. They do because they know it’s hard to get up there and get up in front of somebody and do your thing. We have professional people that do this all the time that get up there and mess up,” Moore says. “They’re, like, ‘Wait a minute, let me start over,’ you know, and it’s OK. People say, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK — do your thing.’ ”
After each event, Moore sends out an e-mail, asking patrons what they liked and thanking them for attending. “I thank people because they don’t have to support us,” she says. “I don’t even know the words to say about how I feel about Expressions and the things that we can do for Springfield,” Moore says. “Getting the word out — that’s my thing, just to let people know that we’re here, we’re doing this thing, and people are loving it.”
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