Written by RJ Bartholomew
Performed by Richard Hoehler
Directed by Janice L. Goldberg
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
What is a successful money manager to do after serving time in prison for the misappropriation of funds and finding he is bereft of family, friends, and home? The Speaker in Def Poet RJ Bartholomew’s “I of the Storm” faces that precise circumstance and chooses to come to terms with his homelessness by embracing it and “letting go.” This Speaker now lives in the same New York City Park he used to pass through on his way to work when he missed the shuttle or could not get onto the subway. He spends his days sharing his experiences with passersby (in this case, the audience) and encouraging them to focus on not being “programmed” by the world – as he was – but rather seeking opportunities to be thankful and to overcome the world’s negativity.
The Speaker’s “savior” was a thirty-something free spirit Mars who, after hearing his story, befriended him and became part muse, part daughter, part platonic lover, part co-conspirator in a variety of life-affirming escapades. Mars, too, has been “damaged” by society but strives to be “deprogrammed.” She plays an important part in the Speaker’s recovery and redemption and empowers him to not only “let go” but you literally and figuratively “clean up” the clutter of negativity and guilt that prevents him from moving forward. On the day of her funeral, the Speaker honors Mars with the eloquence of a poet, the centeredness of a monk, and the unconditional love of a therapist.
Richard Hoehler is the perfect match for RJ Bartholomew’s expansive spoken word text. Mr. Hoehler mines the depths of this extended “urban poem” and delivers the richness of the text with absolute perfection, giving the words precisely the power needed to convey the poet’s meanings. The text is punctuated with a myriad of cultural and religious imagery which makes it accessible to a broad audience. Listeners might not recognize every reference or allusion; however, there is something everyone can relate to and “tune into” the important themes of the work. Perhaps not many recognized the Shaolin Kung Fu basic movement – perfectly executed by Mr. Hoehler – but those who did instantly connected with the poet’s messages.
Those messages are multifaceted and counterpoint with the complexities and vicissitudes of the human experience and raise a series of deep, rich, and enduring questions. How can the individual be “in the world” without being “of the world?” In a competitive and often abusive work environment, how can the individual keep the “me” from overshadowing the need for justice and equality? How can the “I” (the ego) regain enough strength after almost disintegrating to “clean up” the detritus of emotional meltdown? Is the road to recovery from loss possible without a “helpmate?” The Speaker addresses these important questions in a remarkable riff.
The Speaker’s riff is divided into rants about all those things that have the potential of preventing the individual from “letting go” and preventing the individual from experiencing the “I” as her or his “I” is buffeted about by life’s storms. There are rants about social media, television, religion, family systems, and the workplace. At least one of these rants spirals out of control and lands the Speaker in a seventy-two hour “psych watch” in a mental hospital, an institution “far worse than prison.” The audience sits in near stupefaction at Richard Hoehler’s acumen at “spitting” the spoken word text. It is not possible to escape the intensity, the importance, the veracity of Mr. Hoehler’s character and that Everyman’s struggle for a life driven by integrity and compassion.
Director Janice L. Goldberg keeps the performance as visually interesting as it is emotionally and spiritually significant. Mr. Hoehler’s movements are precise, perfectly timed, and never extraneous. Mark Symczak’s sparse set punctuated by Michael Abrams’ lighting and Craig Lenti’s sound design are the perfect complement to RJ Bartholomew’s challenging and engaging text.
“I of the Storm” is a well-structured performance piece with a powerful dramatic arc. Its message is redemptive and salvific. This stunning performance piece should be on every serious theatre-goers must see list.