Al Letson is a poet, playwright, performer, and radio and podcast host. This article first appeared on Bill Ectric’s Place in June 2005. Since that time, Letson has hosted and produced the show State of the Re:Union for National Public Radio. He now hosts Reveal, a podcast from PRX and Center for Investigative Reporting.
Top photo by Billie Anderson. Text and other photos by Bill Ectric. Except for the one of Al and me. Does anyone out there know who took that one?
For dedication to his craft, innate talent, and hard work, Al Letson deserves the title of consummate professional, and I don’t use those words lightly. His delivery is precise, the emotion is fresh – Letson never seems to be on autopilot.
“Penumbra,” Letson explained to a full house, means basically “in between.” This night consisted of a mixture of poems and performance pieces that he has done in the past from different shows, as a kind of pause before he begins to put out new work, and to introduce himself to those who have not yet seen him.
Letson’s live performance, which began at 9:00 PM, was a diverse and exhilarating selection of poetry, acting, and monologue, sometimes accompanied by three percussionists near the stage. Interspersed among the live performances were two of Letson’s videos on a large screen backdrop. I believe we will see more poetry & spoken word videos and Al Letson is already helping to set the standard. Following an intermission, we all reconvened in the theater for a big screen viewing of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam – the 2nd episode of the season, featuring our man Al Letson as the first guest! He had recently taped the episode and this night was the first time he, or anyone had seen it.
My favorite piece of the evening was called “Eunice.” It’s about a young black girl, a child in 1943, playing her first piano recital after much practice. During the recital she is distracted by a disturbance in the audience. Her parents are being told to move to the back of the room to make room for a white couple. Through this debacle she must keep playing, as her father mouths the words to her, “you know what you suppose to do.” Near the end of the poem we find out that this is a true story and the young girl, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, later changed her name to become famous as the great Nina Simone.
When he wasn’t on stage, Letson was in great demand by fans, friends, reporters, and members of his crew, so I mostly had to ask him questions on the fly. “Who did your videos?” I asked him. “I do most of my own video work,” he said. “The two you saw tonight were filmed by Don Solomon from Jacksonville Beach, but I do all my own editing and effects. I know quite a lot about video production and I enjoy doing it.”
I said that I could easily see him acting in films. Someone spoke up and said, “He writes good plays. One of his plays will be on Broadway someday!”
I asked him, “If you could travel into the past, what historical figure would you like to meet?” As he thought about my question, a young woman approached us, saying, “Al, we need you backstage for a minute.” Turning to me, Letson said, “Excuse me, I need to see what they need,” but as he walked away with the lady, he looked back at me thoughtfully and said, “Kennedy.”
We got a special treat before watching Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry. Because of last minute complications, the local cable company refused to hook up HBO directly to the club (typical), so someone had to record the show and bring it to Henrietta’s for viewing. To fill in the time delay, Letson performed an electrifying, beat-filled theater piece from one of his plays, called Griot. He was joined onstage by Larry Knight and David Girard Pugh, two other performers from the play.
Letson was first up on Def Poetry. You can read more about this performance on Literary Kicks, which is reviewing each episode as they air.