Not far from South Beach in the patio of a Little Haiti stronghold, young adults indulge in personal expression that goes beyond tank tops and bling bling. The desire for fun and freedom unites these people, but the main draw every Monday night is body language, voice, and music employed during Theatre de Underground, the latest in the lineup of unlikely events to fill down-home drinking and music establishment Churchill's.
For the past four months, rain or shine, the "sort-of" British pub has hosted "sort-of" theater on its outdoor stage bedecked by murals of blue skeletons wielding guitars and aptly the Underground sign (symbol of London's subterranean rail system), one inspiration for the event's name. Actors, poets, or any ham can jump into the makeshift spotlight and deliver original monologues, traditional poetry, and spoken word; perform in skits or one-person shows; conduct workshops; and show films.
Kristen McCorkell, event coordinator and mastermind of the idea with actor friends Andrio Chavarro and Leif Gilbertson from New World School of the Arts, loosely sets the evening's agenda. Experienced entertainers are scheduled into the program. Some appear in costume, lines memorized; others prep by leafing through notebooks as the audience waits. But there is room for novices as well, who arrive bearing handwritten pieces they timidly read.
"The audience is really what makes this happen," McCorkell explains. "We call them the tribes of the moon, because they always come and they'll sit through the rain." Much of that die-hard group is local, living in Little Haiti, the Design District, or near up-and-coming areas around Biscayne Bay. Many know each other from artsy New World circles and spoken-word events. Most would come to Churchill's anyway for the Monday-night jazz sessions, but McCorkell claims at times as many as three different crowds circulate throughout the course of the night, keeping the performers from falling back on routine.
Despite the glaring resemblance to bombastic spoken-word poetry performance popularized during the early 1990s in New York City venues such as the Nuyorican Poets Café, this event retains touches of Miami originality. Several weeks back musician/artist Jude "Papaloko" Thegenus, owner of the Jakmel Gallery and Cultural Center, brought his backup group of drummers and singers, rousing the crowd and inspiring a multicultural display unique to Miami. Chanting the names of Voudou gods and goddesses, some performers began to engage in capoeira, the Brazilian dance/martial art, on the brick patio floor as the audience clapped and danced around them.
A central theme in many of the performances: identity issues of cultural hybridity intrinsic to many Miamians. It's not a surprise then that Jamaican, Cuban, Haitian, Portuguese, and even Italian accents can often be heard. Also seemingly omnipresent in the works are issues like the battle of the sexes and race inequities. In addition to the entertainment aspect of the evening, its very essence sometimes focuses on airing these differences and moving beyond them. "After all," says Chavarro, "we're all the same single monkey swinging from the same tree."