Last night I was at the Seattle performance of Chicago writer J.W. Baz’s one man show “No one Can Fix You.” at the Fremont Abbey. Two thumbs solidly held way, way up!
Now let’s be honest, when someone under the age of 60 tells you he is working on his memoir, does a little voice in your brain say, “Oh no.” Does the dread increase if he adds, “Yeah, I’ve just had so much crazy stuff happen to me in my life, I had to write it down.” It’s not that I’m against memoir as a genre, it’s just that I think it is a great challenge for a writer to figure out which elements of his life are relevant to other people. It seems like a lot of young writers are writing memoir to reassure themselves about the value of their lives and want to bring you along on the journey of reinforcing their own egos.
I am happy to report that J.W. Baz walks the line of intriguing self-reflection marvelously in his one-man show. Telling the story of his life through love, relationships, addiction and writing/touring, Baz tells revealing, funny, tragic stories with wit. I had the feeling that Baz wasn’t trying to make me come to a particular conclusion about his life and who he is, he presented himself nakedly on stage but with style, more of a burlesque show than a striptease.
I know Baz from poetry slam and I’m always so excited to watch spoken word artists infiltrate other genres. The writers who are graduating from slam are seeping into all other areas of literary involvement and it is pretty thrilling to see what chemical mixing is taking place. It takes a little time for most writers to learn to really hold and audience for a 3 minute poem, then to graduate to a 15 minute set. Baz blasted right into a gripping 90 minute show and made it look easy! In fact, he made it look so easy, that it is almost too easy for forget how hard it is to do what he has done.
Baz didn’t have a director for this show, he had an editor. Seeing the show, I find that fact astounding. The pacing of the show is fantastic, the humor is masterfully placed and the simple staging is extremely effective. For 90 minutes, Baz went on from sitting in a chair to reading from a notebook to pacing around and all the choice were good ones. It helps everything run smoothly that Baz is naturally funny.
My week of hearing poets brought about one interesting comparison. I taught about and went to see the poet Jane Hirshfield this week as part of SAL’s Poetry Series at Benaroya Hall. Jane Hirshfield (who was marvelous) is a Zen Buddhist poet. Part of Buddhist practice is the process of escaping from our stories, meaning the narratives we shape in our minds in order to understand the things that happen to and around us. These stories keep us locked into a narrow way of experiencing the world, rather than being awake to the new experience of every moment as it occurs. (Forgive my summary, I don’t claim any ability to teach about Buddhism.)
Where Jane Hirshfield seems to avoid climbing into her own narrative in her poems, we get to watch J.W. Baz climb all the way inside of his and root around looking to make sense of it all. He’s very honest about his human suffering within that story and his attempts to look for a window to climb out of it. I think that is one reason the show is so fascinating to watch.
My one criticism of the piece involves the last 20 minutes. As we watch Baz move yo-yo style through addiction and relationships in an effort to squirm out of his uncomfortably human skin, we get an eloquently crafted view of human suffering. By the end, though, he seems to indicate that he thinks he has found a possible passage out of the rat maze. Those solutions seem to come from two sources: writing and a girl.
I hate to sound hardened on this point. I really do believe in the power of art to save lives. I also strongly believe in the transformational power of love. But for some reason, it just didn’t ring true for me in Baz’s show. I think he is a man still looking for a way out of the maze and I’m down to watch him keep looking, but I didn’t get the sense that he had found more than an arrow someone hastily scrawled on the wall of the labyrinth that may or may not lead in the right direction. For me, as Baz’s narrative approached the “right now” time, it lost the power of self-reflection that the pieces about his past contained.
To sum it up…SEE THIS SHOW! This was Baz’s first performance outside of Chicago and I really hope he manages to take it on the road for real. You other slam scenes, please help Baz make this happen. Your poets will become better writers from seeing it and we will all help spoken word take another little evolutionary step.