Made of spit and spirit, cunning and chaos, deliverance and destruction, Kristiana Rae Colon’s “Octagon” takes apart the world of slam poetry with bravado and brio. Though at times self-indulgent, self-conscious and insufficiently clear in its exploration of sexual politics — well, that too feels honest to the characters onstage. They’re learning how to read between the lines of their relationships even as they’re shouting what they insist is their truth into a microphone.
Colon, a Chicago-based writer and organizer, premiered this play with London’s Arcola Theatre in September 2015. But it’s fitting that it should land home here in Chicago, just a mile and a half up the road from the Green Mill, where Marc Smith gets credit for inventing the “poetry slam.” Jackalope Theatre’s sweaty, exuberant and at times frustrating production, directed by Tara Branham, functions in part as a guide to the roots of the slam.
The MC, here called “The Watcher Named Pen” (Sydney Charles), lays out the basic rules for us. Three-minute time limit, five judges giving a score between zero and 10, with “zero being the poem that makes you wish you were aborted, 10 being the poem that liquefies your Liechtenstein, shivers your timbers, halogens your heart, chiropracts your soul.”
But the competition at “the Junction,” the saloon presided over by Pen, isn’t just for individual glory. It’s also for a shot to join the four-person team that will compete at the prestigious national “Octagon” slam — one that Pen won three times before she stopped “spitting” to host other poets and raise her daughter. It was a four-man team (emphasis on “man”), but internecine infidelities have caused one member — the never-seen Iggy, a “civilian” investment banker who was slumming with the slam — to quit.