Letson, Al 1972–
Al Letson 1972–
After watching a documentary on poetry and hearing a recorded spoken word performance, Al Letson exploded onto the Slam Poetry scene in 1998. During the next couple years, Letson performed at several slam competitions, with great success. In a slam event, the poet, who has three minutes to perform his or her piece, receives a score decided by a panel of judges. In 2000, Letson came in third, out of 250 candidates. Letson, who loves plays, went on to develop a one-man show that has been met with great enthusiasm and has received standing ovations. One of his poems has been adapted for a short film, and his work has been recorded for HBO’s Def Poetry Jam II.
Alfred Letson Jr. was born in Plainsfield, New Jersey, on August 8, 1972. His father Alfred, was a Baptist minister and his mother, Ruth, was a “lifer” at AT & T. When Letson was twelve, his family moved to Orange Park, Florida. For Al Jr., moving from a relatively liberal, integrated neighborhood in the North to a primarily white neighborhood in the South was a huge adjustment. For example, the social cues were completely different and, more drastically, the status of African Americans, in Letson’s perception, was lower. For the first time in his life, Letson was called “nigger.” In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), Letson recalled an incident that stayed with him for years. One day, while coming home from school he noticed that someone had spray-painted a message in the street in front of his house that read, “No fat chicks or niggers.” Needless to say, Letson was appalled. The message was then mysteriously covered up with regular house paint. Ironically, the police officers who investigated the incident were more concerned about who had painted over the graffiti than who had written the message in the first place.
As a child, Letson could not keep still. He told CBB that he was “the boy walking down the halls at school be-boppin’, rappin’, and bouncin’ off the walls.” With a talent for memorizing words and a body that could not contain his inner rhythm, Al was very entertaining. Everybody knew him. While Al was in junior high, he was already making demo tapes, and spending a lot of time in the recording studio. If he wasn’t writing rhymes or singing, he had his nose buried in a book from his favorite series of novels, the Dragonlance Saga.
While his literary pursuit was drenched in fantasy, his lyrical world was inspired by the sociopolitical realism of hip hop and rap, particularly that of Public Enemy. During these early years, Letson did not have much encouragement to further develop his talent, possibly because rap music was still considered rather subversive. Essentially, Letson was completely self-motivated.
Letson continued his musical endeavors, during his high school years. He applied and was accepted to college, but chose not to attend. Instead, Letson enjoyed being a member of two bands that experienced a
At a Glance…
Born Alfred Letson Jr. on August 8, 1972, in Plainsfield, NJ; children: Brooklyn, Greg, Syrus.
Career: Poet, 1998-; playwright, 2001-.
moderate amount of local success. Like many musicians, he needed a day job to support himself. He worked at a knife sharpening company and also trained to be a flight attendant, working for American Eagle Airlines. He also worked sporadically at Border’s Book Store. While he was able to support himself, he found that his artistic outlet was limited and began to look for other avenues of expression. Then, Letson found inspiration in the most unlikely of place: The Language of Life, a PBS documentary on poetry by Bill Moyers. The series featured Seku Sundiata, among others, whose work deeply affected Letson. In his interview with CBB, he said that the line in Sundiata’s poem, Dijerrido, that really influenced him to look toward poetry as an outlet was, “What you dream up is deeper than what you know.”
By 1997 Letson was ready to perform his poetry, but did not know what venue would really allow him to break into the poetry circuit. Then, while working at Border’s Book Store, he came upon an audio recording of the 1994 National Poetry Slam. Completely electrified after listening to the poems featured on the CD, Letson contacted the CD company and talked with Bob Holman, who steered him toward the world of poetry slams. In 1998 Letson, using his connections as a flight attendant, flew to Austin, Texas, where he participated in his first Slam competition. The Slam was a huge success and Letson hit the road to tour on the professional performance poetry circuit.
Over time, Letson grew a following as his poetry became more well known and recognized in the world of performance poetry. During his circuit tour in 1999, crowds began demanding to hear certain poems. Popular favorites included “Loneliness Over Big Waters,” “Philadelphia,” and “Second Planet from a Star,” an ode to tennis star, Venus Williams. Letson’s poetry reached an even broader audience when his poem “Stoplights and Other Colors,” a poem that addresses class distinctions within the black community, was adapted into a short film by long time collaborator Dan Solomon.
After having been involved in the performance poetry circuit, Letson expanded his repertoire to include storytelling. In 2000 he created Essential Personnel, a one-man show featuring a collection of his short, but emotionally detailed, stories of characters whose tales are least likely to be heard. Audiences are treated to a variety of characters, all played by Letson himself, who deal with different dilemmas in everyday life in surprising ways. One example of Letson’s characters that an audience of his show would become acquainted with is Billy, who works at a Texas prison. The audience learns a lot about the prison system and hears Billy’s thoughts about various prisoners who were put to death, particularly about Carla Fay Baker, a convicted murderer who found God while in prison and tried to get a stay of execution. The surprise comes when Billy, unknowingly, reveals his intense romantic feelings toward Ms. Baker. Another character, Bobby, a Gulf War veteran, is sitting at home watching the Super Bowl. At half time, he breaks down crying when he hears Ray Charles sing America the Beautiful. He reveals how he has always felt like an outsider, finally accusing America, “I’m good enough to be her soldier but not good enough to be her son.”
While Letson has limited himself to playing only male roles, his characters are from all walks of life and represent various cultural and racial groups, not just black Americans—whatever it takes to tell the story. However, Letson told CBB, his “male roles are often portrayed in relation to (or in reaction to) female perspectives.” The show was first performed in early 2001 at the Ritz in Jacksonville, Florida, and then moved later in the year to a two week engagement in New York’s Nuyorican Café. During the two week engagement at the Nuyorican, Letson’s play was viewed by various critics and financiers and when the show ended, Letson was approached by a group known as Theater Projects who wanted to provide funding for a tour to perform his show nationwide.
A theater lover, Letson obtains much of his material from current events, or from personal experiences. He has a remarkable talent for selecting a character who can make a single statement, all the while explaining a larger context. Letson told CBB that his “love of theater comes from reading, not seeing, plays.” In fact, until he had written Essential Personnel, he had not seen one play performed on stage—his first being Death of a Salesman. His favorite playwrights include August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Henry Miller, David Mamet, Susan Lori Parks, and William Shakespeare. He told CBB that one day, after performing Essential Personnel in New York, Letson strolled into the Joseph Papp Theater and just sat there—he wanted to feel what it was like to sit in a famous theater as a playwright.
Letson, who created emotional scenarios and graciously shares his insights, is busy developing some new short stories and plays. He told CBB that he plans to write some pieces about the South as well as about his biological son, from whom he was separated for many years. He lives in Jacksonville where he teaches poetry, and gives workshops.
Stoplights, short film, 1999.
Essential Personal, play, first performed at the Ritz, Jacksonville, FL, 2001.
Village Voice (Baltimore), November 20, 2002.
Al Letson Official Site, www.alletson.com (April 15, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography on February 5, 2003.
—Christine Miner Minderovic
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