Each year, Goodman Theatre helps Chicagoland students raise their voice and make plenty of noise at the world’s largest youth poetry festival: Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB). More than 110 Chicagoland middle and high school teams—as well as organization-sponsored teams like the Goodman’s, formed in 2015—compete at this annual five-week slam poetry tournament, which originated in Chicago in 2001 and has since expanded into 13 cities across the country and Canada.
Rooted in hip hop culture, slam poetry, or spoken word, performances frequently draw on personal experience, which attracts the Goodman’s youth program participants to the art form. In 2014, the Goodman commissioned six young poets to write a spoken word piece responding to the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial. They performed the resulting work, Two Years Later (After Trayvon), in conjunction with a series of staged readings at a Goodman’s event, Facing Our Truth: Short Plays on Trayvon, Race and Privilege, and also as a guest act in that year’s LTAB festival. The success of these experiences inspired the creation of the Youth Poetry Ensemble at Goodman Theatre—including two of the poets from Two Years Later (After Trayvon), KZ Wilkerson and AJ Smith, coached by veteran teaching artist Bobby Biedrzycki. Wilkerson would later return as a coach for the ensemble.
The Ensemble competes in LTAB as “Team Good Eddy,” an affectionate nickname for “Goodman Education.” Earlier this year, Good Eddy’s prowess landed them in the semi-finals at Metro Chicago, Wrigleyville’s famed music venue, where they placed second in their match among the city’s top 16 teams. In addition, ensemble member Damayanti Wallace was selected to compete in the individual poets’ final competition with her piece, “Poplar Trees Have PTSD.”
Competition certainly drives the students’ artistic process and focus—but a popular LTAB saying is, “The point is not the points; the point is the POETRY.” The Youth Poetry Ensemble provides a space where young artists can fully express themselves without fear of judgement. They meet every other week in the Alice Rapaport Center for Education and Engagement, where they share poems, discuss current events and explore where and how they fit into society. Together, they write and support each other’s work, and build art and community—such as at About Face Theatre’s Youth Artivism Symposium. Ultimately, it comes back to the poetry. As Biedrzycki puts it, “Poetry is a way to be together. It’s a reason to be together.”
For more information about the Youth Poetry Ensemble, e-mail Education@GoodmanTheatre.org