By Jennifer McCauley
On Wednesday November 18th, Reading Queer kicked off its second festival with the acclaimed event “Paris is Still Burning,” held at the Olympia Theater.
Eight months earlier, in an off-site gallery at AWP 2015, writer Patricia Smith hosted a reading that paid tribute to the iconic “Paris is Burning,” a documentary about black and Latino queer ball culture in New York City. The AWP reading featured RQ 2015 Festival headliner L.Lamar Wilson, Eduardo Coral, Jericho Brown, Saeed Jones, Danez Smith and Justin Phillip Reed, among others. Patti Smith’s “Paris is Burning” showed off the immense talent of queer writers of color, a group oft-neglected at writers’ conferences. Reading Queer founder Neil de La Flor sought to produce a Miami version of the reading, and to capture the city’s unique spirit, diversity and energy. Fast forward to November 2015 and literary stalwarts David Tomas Martinez, Dawn Lundy Martin, Justin Phillip Reed and Danez Smith came to Miami to set the Magic City ablaze.
Olympia Theater, the Downtown Miami auditorium where Etta James and B.B. King once performed, was the perfect setting for the event. The tables were draped in black tablecloths, the chandeliers hung, sparkling, from the ceiling, and patrons packed the main auditorium and balcony with wine glasses and appetizers in hand.
The reading opened with Justin Philllip Reed, one of the original performers at the AWP off-site event. Reed read stirring poems about “…the distance between substance and self…,” violence, dark relationships and violent sex. He performed stunning lines like, “Is it violent hoping we don’t think alike at all…it could kill us what we don’t know, but are starting to glimpse…” slowly and precisely, his words cutting up the audience’s collective heart.
David Thomas Martinez read poems about adolescence, sex, race, Mexican culture, his family life, and being “nameless…nothing is more nomadic than names…” Martinez said, in his first poem, he saw “sex everywhere……how the world moaned and pumped and hope flashed fluorescently through the blinds…” Martinez’s performance pulsed with swagger, strength and careful restraint.
The next reader, Dawn Lundy Martin, said her book was particularly written for “black and brown people…” and she was pleased to see so much diversity in the “Paris is Still Burning” audience. Martin read several poems about the black female identity, racism in society and art, aggression and the abuse of the black body, among other topics. Lundy said, her voice butter-smooth, “To feel yourself can be like a haunting…to be unadorned or unclothed…light bursts…” Martin’s reading was haunting and lovely, the sort of performance that stayed with the audience long after she stepped off stage.
Danez Smith, a celebrated performer and slam poet, closed the show with a rousing, moving and energetic reading of his work. Smith’s poems explored the murder of transgender bodies, having a face that resembles other faces, “black movies” and the abuse of the black body. Smith sang, preached, cried his poems. Throughout his performance, the audience was either cheering or speechless.
In Smith’s final piece, “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” the poet imagines a dinosaur movie that features black characters but doesn’t include the tropes and stereotypes of a typical “black movie.” Smith says, his fictional movie “…can’t be about black pain or cause black people pain ….This movie can’t be about race….No bullets in the heroes./& no one kills the black boy. & no one kills/the black boy. & no one kills the black boy….” Smith closed the poem and “Paris is Still Burning” with the knock out lines, “the only reason/I want to make this is for that first scene anyway: the little black boy on the bus with a toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless…his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there…” Smith left the last words hanging heavy in the Olympia Theater air.
After the reading, RQ held a mini-ball featuring Reading Queer alum Y’senia Mina and other local performers who danced, vogued, and killed the theater runaway, much like the dancers in the original documentary.
While RQ’s “Paris is Still Burning” paid tribute to the original film and AWP reading series, the event also showcased Miami’s diversity, class and history, and the incredible talent of queer writers of color.
( Original Post appears on The Florida Book Review)