The tables at the University of Denver’s Sidelines Pub & Grill were all turned around and chairs disregarded the normal order, all in order to face the small, black stage hidden in the corner of the restaurant. For that evening, the end of the day of February 24, 2009, there was an open- mike night at the popular collegiate grill.
The night of student poetry, narrative, and drama opened with a DU writing professor explaining the purpose of the event as a way for students to express their views and reflections on the world around them, or merely what came to their mind as they spoke. It was to be, essentially, a night of student participation in the rhetorical discussion on the issues that define our world.
The first performance was by a small group of students from the campus organization, Asian Student Alliance (ASA). The skit they performed, entitled “Insolidarity”, was a silent visual drama tracing the history of discrimination against Asian and Asian- Americans in the United States and asserting the importance of society’s (and especially the Asian community’s) rejection of such treatment. Though not the traditional rhetorical means of persuasion in which the rhetor vocally attempts to influence his audience, the use of displayed language on posters and in a slideshow in the ASA skit made just as strong impression on the audience as the strongest of spoken words. The title of the skit explicitly explained the purpose of the short drama, as well, so there was no misunderstanding that the 5 students of various Asian ethnicities were performing in order to unite all peoples, and especially Asian peoples, in a violent societal rejection of the historical prejudices against Asians, prejudices that still pervade in modern America.
From the brief yet powerful facts that were displayed on posters dropped in rhythm to the strong base of background music, to the slideshow exhibiting moving images of Asian oppression in America with short explanations, the skit elicited first extreme interest in the words and images presented, and then emphatic nods of approval from the crowd. For within three minutes, the ASA educated the audience on the history of Asian discrimination—from the mistreatment of 19th century Chinese rail road workers, to the WWII internment of thousands of Japanese Americans, to the very current stereotypes attributed to the Vietnamese after the Virginia Tech shootings—demonstrated the burgeoning Asian movement to resist such racially unjust treatment, and extended an invitation to all ethnicities to help combat such discrimination. Insolidarity—or unity in working towards a common goal—was, as the skit showed, necessary to prevent the horrific incidents that stain America’s past from staining our own modern times.
The remainder of the night’s speakers seemed to follow the theme set forth by the ASA. Following the drama, a student approached the stage, was introduced as “Don”, and began reading a narrative poem. Like the ASA mini-production, the original poem Don read addressed the presence of prejudice in Denver. Don’s poem narrated a recent bus experience he had and what he learned of himself because of it; he noted what his views had been and the assumptions he automatically made of the people who got off at the Colfax station (Colfax being a notorious center of fear in the Denver Community), and, in the poem, proceeded to question those perceptions, both in society and in his own person. Don’s poem discussed how he, during his bus ride, had automatically associated the people exiting the train on Colfax as somehow being connected with crime and poverty, and in general, merely inferior to himself simply due to the geographic location of their destinations. Of course many of the people exiting on Colfax were different than himself, Don recognized; many were women, and many were older, and many were of a different race. Yet how much was he missing by writing them off so quickly? As the conclusion of Don’s poem asked, how much could we learn if we all actually talked to someone different than ourselves?
Like Don, and the ASA, the other speakers that performed that night all addressed the issue of race and the influence it still has in our world, in politics and in our personal lives and perceptions. One speaker, Russell, gave a moving performance of slam poetry. In addition to his obvious, jarring talent in writing, Russell’s content stirred strong emotion, as well. Focused primarily on the futility of politics and the corruptness of government in social policies, Russell’s poetry concentrated mainly on the seemingly inevitable path many a minority citizen’s life seemed to have. In one brief line, he summed this by bluntly and quickly stating, “The skin is the sin.” His observation of the lack of opportunity and fairness in our society, still, left Russell repeating throughout his poem, and ending his performance with the same, brief remark, “Days of the Despair.” Russell’s poem was strengthened by a second performance of slam poetry by a Denver local, Lorenzo. Lorenzo focused on the same inevitability of minority citizen’s lives. Many minority citizens were essentially trapped by society; by the neighborhood they lived in, by the school they went to, by what language they spoke, and most of all, by what color their skin was. As he narrated a story of a gang-banger from the first person, Lorenzo moved the crowd to visible emotion in describing the youths trapped in neighborhoods where not joining a gang was not an option, and a day without violence was a day out of the ordinary.
It was the last speaker, however, that truly connected all these events to DU. Though not as emotionally moving as the ASA skit or the student poetry, Sarah’s reading of a recent essay she wrote centered the audience on the idea of racial inequality at DU, inequality expressed merely through numbers. Racism, as Sarah pointed out, had to be combated, yet by isolating ourselves (the DU community) from major groups of different ethnicities, we, as a school, were perpetuating a form of racism ourselves, exclusionism. Though surely none of the participants and none of the audience were racists, Sarah’s opinion that DU—its administration, its faculty, and its students—should take a more proactive role to diversify our university was widely received as fact.
And so, with Sarah’s conclusion on the path DU should take, her peers’ consensus on such a path, and an excerpt from the Vagina Monologues, the open-mike night at the Pub was ended. Though the night passed shortly—the event was only an hour and a half long—the views expressed merited further contemplation and action; the audience seemed to recognize this as the usually rambunctious college students left the restaurant in primarily serious, reflective moods.