April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Felicia Webster’s voice produces chills up the spine. “And then he kiiiiissssssed me, and I melted. Like buttah.”

Her friend, Michelle Troxclair, nods and waves a hand. “Mhm, girl, we know what that’s like.”

This is spoken-word entertainment. It’s theatrical, it’s heartfelt, it’s ethereal, and it happens every third Thursday of the month at House of Loom on 10th and Pacific streets. This is not your safe-bet night out. The words you’ll hear could be dark, could be sexy, could be hilarious. It could be anything really, which is why Webster and Troxclair, the open-mic evening’s organizers, call this night Verbal Gumbo.

Troxclair arranges the club’s random chaise lounges, velvet chairs, and embroidered hassocks on the dance floor. Webster picks out the candles and incense. If guests outnumber the usual crowd of around 70, there might be a few people standing. A $5 cover charge gets you a simple meal, like Troxclair’s white chicken chili or her brother’s highly requested mac-and-cheese.

The evening begins around 7 p.m., giving guests enough time to sign up to speak if they wish, get their bowl, and settle into a seat. Troxclair is strict about minimizing distraction during the spoken word sets that begin about 8-ish. Of course, feel free to get up from your seat to wait for the massage therapist set up in the corner or the body painter off to the side as someone else speaks at the mic.

“For those who haven’t come here before,” Webster explains, “they’ll find out that it doesn’t matter what order you sign up in.”20130321_bs_8812

Troxclair laughs and says, “It’s whoever I’m feeling like hearing at the time.” The two women make sure speakers alternate male and female, but other than that, there are few rules. People offer poetry about anything from relationships to violence to the triumph of breaking cycles. “Sometimes it’s comedic,” Troxclair says, “but there’s always a message.”

The only requirement is that “you respect the mic,” as Webster puts it. Verbal Gumbo creates a flow between audience and speaker, almost a conversation. The speaker shares his work, and the audience participates in the performance by responding verbally when something resonates.

“Say yes, say amen, say all right, honey!” Troxclair suggests. “You’re validating what they’re saying.”

About 15 people speak per night for about three to five minutes apiece. If time’s not running tight, each person should feel free to offer two pieces. A short intermission makes room for a few public service announcements and to refill a drink.

Felicia Webster

Felicia Webster

If the easily stage-frightened start to come out of their shells as the evening progresses, all bets are not off. Walk back to the sign-up sheet, add your name, and you’ll probably be called on. Deliver your offering with confidence that whatever you bring will be accepted. “This is not The Apollo,” Webster says. “You don’t get the hook.”

Let’s be clear. Verbal Gumbo is not another poetry slam. A poetry slam is an entertaining competition. “Spoken word incorporates storytelling,” Troxclair says, separating spoken word from slam. “It can be prose or poetry.” Historically, it’s an artistic—and sometimes secret—way to spread information. It’s an oral tradition shared by Africans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and many other cultures.

“You are disseminating information to get people to think, to move, to change, to progress, to become empowered,” Webster says. That recipe ensures that Verbal Gumbo, like its culinary counterpart, is savory, spicy, and never the same twice.

Sample the next Verbal Gumbo on Thursday, May 16, or Thursday, June 20.

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