When the Distinguished Gentlemen of Spoken Word enter a room, they storm it frat-style, digging in their feet and thrusting their elbows. They are a single-file sensation.
Once in position, the 20 black youths in tuxedos recite their creed in unison while executing precise movements.
“I aim high,” all 20 roar, using their hands to shoot 20 imaginary baskets.
“I will never, never, never, accept failure,” they boom, shaking their heads, “because I’m destined for greatness.”
This group performs poetry, but there’s no Emily-Dickinson-shrinking-violet in their style. The Distinguished Gentlemen shout poetry in their deep voices while adding Richter-scale-thumping choreography.
Think Langston Hughes meets “Stomp the Yard.”
“I haven’t seen anything really like it,” said 13-year-old Tyra Washington, a Cleveland eighth-grader who saw them perform recently at Bethany Baptist Church. “They were so organized. It really caught my attention.”
Watching them makes her want to write more poetry, she added. “It inspires me to write more about what I feel.”
The Distinguished Gentlemen range in age from 7 to 18. Most attend schools in Cleveland’s gang-scarred Hough neighborhood. They know the “I Have a Dream” speech by heart, and can spout the poetry of James Weldon Johnson and Countee Cullen. They drink in the rival philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois while memorizing rap-style poems about them.
They also perform works by their founder, Honey Bell-Bey, whose plaintive save-the-children poems seem born for an ensemble of youngsters to speak them — as well as dance them, act them out, even holler them.
While performing Bell-Bey’s “Living in the Fire But We Will Not Burn,” 13-year-old Isaiah Mitchell broke out of the line to scream “Fire!”
“Do y’all smell that?” he asked the audience. “It’s the smell of fire! Destiny’s burning in the fumes. Young lives just being consumed. As we just resume our everyday lives, as if it is OK.”
“It’s not OK,” the group responded, their voices beating a grim staccato.
“I went to my first funeral yesterday. Twelve years old, shot,” Isaiah continued.
“Pop pop pop,” the group underscored him with gunshot sounds.
Bell-Bey, project director for Cleveland’s Urban Minority Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Outreach Program, launched the Distinguished Gentlemen in 2003, and they have grown to be in hot demand. The group traveled to Miami last year and did a gig in Lima, Ohio. “The girls were falling all over them, screaming their names. They thought they were celebrities,” said Cassandra Phillips, mother of a performer.
In Cleveland, Bell-Bey faced so much pressure from girls to create a similar outlet for them that two years ago she gave in and launched the Elegant Ladies of Poetic Thought.
For both groups, perfection is honed in a boot camp atmosphere. During summer, the Distinguished Gentlemen practice for hours in a multipurpose room devoid of air conditioning. Although they call their director “Miss Honey,” she’s not sweet. She makes them stand at attention, or drop to the floor to do 10 push-ups if they horse around or even crack a smile.
“She’s just growing us to be young men,” said Elmo Vales Jr., 14, who endured Bell-Bey’s wrath recently for fighting. “She wants us to be the leaders.”
One of the group’s most prolific poets, Demetris General, 17, at first had doubts about the manliness of reciting poetry before a crowd. But he ended up loving the fun of battling vocally with the other boys to win the honor of performing a solo.
Now he keeps a journal, and writes realistic odes to his neighborhood. “See, I’ve got to make it, because if I don’t, I’m just doing a favor for my haters,” one of his poems reads.
“He can’t stop writing,” Bell-Bey said. “His stuff is excellent.”
Being a gent lets Demetris and others explore their raw and softer sides inside an insular world where mediocrity is dissed and excellence is demanded.
While performing a signature piece recently, they clustered in a tight circle and belted out a poem attributed to Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
Delvaughn Devine, 17, emerged from the thicket to recite the solo part. This poem pierces him deeply. Delvaughn spent a week locked up last year for carrying a weapon to school, and vowed when he got out that he would no longer let his gang-affiliated friends deter him from a bright future.
He revels in being one of the Distinguished Gentlemen because it gives him a chance to be in the spotlight while sharing an uplifting message with peers. On stage, he beamed like a star while delivering words once read by Nelson Mandela.
“We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant?” he said.
“BRILLIANT,” all repeated thunderously.
“Gorgeous!” he incited them.
“GORGEOUS,” the group responded to him with voices rising higher.
“Talented!” he cheered.
“TALENTED,” they replied.
“Actually, who are you not to be?” the Distinguished Gentlemen chorused.
Abruptly, they dropped their heads and walked away.
The question hung in the air, for the audience to chew on. Newhouse News Service