A troupe of elementary-school kids clogs the entrance to Cada Vez on a Friday evening. You’d expect to see trendy 20-somethings grooving to the latest hiphop or R&B in the U Street restaurant and club, so it’s a bit disconcerting to step over shorties to get to your gin and tonic.
The little ones are here for the same reason members of the New Black Panther Party, Washington Wizard guard/forward Laron Profit, and various other spectators have come: Etan Thomas, the Wiz’s poetry-penning center/forward, is celebrating the release of his first book, More Than an Athlete. The 6-foot-9 baller, who writes in free verse, says he is inspired by the likes of the Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni, and Amiri Baraka.
Thomas invited the schoolkids because “I…use poetry to speak to young people,” as he writes in his book’s introduction. “This is a real passion of mine.” When Thomas, 26, finally arrives, the children mob him, thrusting things in front of him to sign and gleefully posing for photos.
When the youngsters leave, it’s time for the evening’s tip-off. Area Poets Olu Butterfly and Tony Medina read from their works before Moore Black Publishing’s Jessica Care Moore-Poole introduces Thomas. She compares him to other more-than-an-athlete types Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali.
The bespectacled Thomas, wearing black pants and a gray, baggy long-sleeved shirt, his long dreadlocks tucked into a tam, takes the stage to polite applause and animated whoops. In a soft voice that doesn’t overly rely on singsongy poet-speak, he recites three poems from memory. “Wasted Talent” is about friends lost to the streets, “An Abusive Situation” deals with domestic violence, and “Republicans” rails against the GOP for, among other things, trying to end affirmative action: “You’ve started a race at a pace thousands of spaces in front of your opponent/How many advantages do you need?”
“The only reason why I memorize my poems,” Thomas later says, “is because I go to open-mike nights a lot to perform. I like to listen to other people. I like the scene.”
But Moore-Poole wants Thomas to read, not just recite. “We’re not spoken-word artists,” she says with a smile. “We’re writers.” Thomas dutifully picks up his book to read “The ‘N’ Word” and “Toys R Us Kid”—his words now, as they have been all evening, punctuated by a man in the back shouting, “Black power!”
When Thomas finishes his oratory, a gigantic cake featuring his book’s cover image is brought out and placed in front of the stage. As people cut out sugary chunks of More Than an Athlete, Thomas signs the actual books for people who seem to be poetry fans, not sports nuts who braved some verse in order to meet a professional athlete.
The separation of his two worlds is fine by Thomas, who says he didn’t even mention the book-release party to his teammates. “I don’t talk about it a whole lot,” he says as the open-mike part of the evening begins. “It’s the middle of the season, you know. But the guys all show their support for me.”
Thomas nearly signed with Milwaukee in the off-season but was more than relieved when the Wizards matched the Bucks’ offer, he says. He prefers Chocolate City: “I like the political energy here, the way people are involved,” Thomas says. “I love the cultural stuff.”—Christopher Porter