Gold walls reflect light through wine glasses, which glow like luminous, cranberry-red hearts on the tables. Painted people dance to silent music in a huge mural above the crowd, but no one watches them. All eyes are on the gangly poet ranting at the front of the room.
“I use cosmic logic to find microscopic evidence within the universe because we are not the first but we could be the last,” Joshua Huggins begins. He starts slowly, then speeds up until his words run together in mad, urgent rhythm, his hands scrabbling in the air for emphasis. He is, in a sense, preaching. But his rhymes give the words a rare, mathematical beauty. The listeners are swept up in the beat, silent in concentration. “I suspect Mother Nature will no longer protect,” he finishes his poem on the environment, “her children who showed her respect.” He stops. Stomps, whistles, and cheers thunder him off the stage, grinning, relieved.
It’s a recent Open-Mic at Mango’s, where Jordan Jones, aged 4, presides over some 25 poets and their listeners. As her mother calls the next poet to the stage, Jordan pulls a red sweater over her head and balances herself on the arm of a couch.
Since Jordan and her mother, Raquel Brown, 30, started hosting the weekly event two and a half years ago, Mango’s, on 2017 14th St. NW, has become a local epicenter of spoken-word poetry. “This is like church for people,” says Brown of the club, which is open only for private parties and for Open-Mic on Tuesday at 8 p.m.. “A lot of times I come out just to maintain that, but even though I talk shit and call names, I learn from these people. There’s love here. I need them to kick it the way they do.”
The need is mutual. Brown and her daughter’s congregation of Howard University students, U Street hipsters, city bards, and suburban refugees swells to upward of 50 people each Tuesday, with as many as 100 attending in the summer.
Before coming to Mango’s, in 1997, Brown—who keeps the books for her father’s air cargo company by day—had never hosted an open-mike night or even read her poetry to an audience. As a teen, she used poetry as a substitute for yelling at her own mother. “I’d write it all down and then I’d read my poetry to [my parents] so they would hear what I wanted to tell them,” she recalls. But that was the extent of her performance experience.
Today, Brown finds her inspiration elsewhere: “I write to teach something that I’ve learned. I hate preaching, but if I can flip it and make it rhyme, and make it funny, people can remember it. It’s also good for me because it’s reiterating life lessons, reminding me what I’ve learned.”
For Brown, poetry is “about simplicity. People get upset because sometimes roses have thorns, but what about the thorns who have roses? It’s the way you look at it. Fish don’t try to swim; the sky doesn’t try to be blue. It’s the art of experience. We all experience the same thing quite differently. Here’s a lot of love, even though I make fun of people.”
Jordan’s reasons for rushing her mother off to Mango’s every Tuesday are a little more basic: She likes the attention. “What are you doing?” she asks an audience member. “Can I sit on your lap?” After a lap tour around the room, she returns to sit on the edge of the stage, where she writes passionately with a lighted pencil. “She’s pretty much grown up around artists,” says Brown. “She imitates us….She plays the keyboard. She picks up things really fast.”
Like being in charge. As the next poet—a tall, dreadlocked fellow whose poetic moniker is Free Verse—approaches the microphone, Brown calls her daughter to come down from the stage: “Hey, Mama!” Jordan ignores her, continuing to write with her lighted pencil. “Sometimes I’m her mama, and sometimes she’s mine,” says Brown, who is a single mother. “It’s only me and her. It’s kind of trial and error.”
Free Verse clears his throat and begins: “All I can give you are my thoughts, and hope they are enough.” The audience cheers. They know what he means. —Robin Bingham