Slam I am: Hawaii Theatre sets the stage

Bridget Gray, Travis T, and the 'Godfather of Hawaii Slam Poetry' light the way

Jess Kroll

HONOLULU—“I remember pointing at that gorgeous marquee and saying ‘One day I’m gonna do a show there,’” says Bridget Gray, her name flashing across the front of the historic Hawaii Theatre in Downtown Honolulu. She beams as other events cycle on. “I should get a picture with my name.”

For Gray, a 3-time Los Angeles Grand Slam Champion and 2-time performer on HBO’s Def Poetry, that day comes on Friday, September 3, with the debut of the Hawaii Theatre Slam. Along with co-hosts Travis T and Jesse Lipman, the new event offers a second monthly venue for competing poets, and perhaps a second squad of local performers for the annual National Poetry Slam.

Scheduled as an on-going series for select first Fridays, Hawaii Theatre Slam is seeking to offer something a little different from other events that take place on that night.

“Naturally, we are looking to add to the art scene that is already thriving on that night by bringing a regular poetry spot into the mix,” Gray says. “Plus it’s free!” 

In addition to the venue, Hawaii Theatre Slam differentiates from past and present poetry events in other ways, the first being a firm cap on performers. Sign-up begins at 6:30, half-an-hour before the event, and closes immediately after 15 poets are named. While this places a limit on the amount of poets who get to take the stage, it assures that every poet who signs up will have time to speak.

The competition is open to all to perform their original poems for cash prizes and opportunities to perform at future shows at the Hawaii Theatre. September’s grand prize includes $100 dollars and a chance to help shape the character of the event as it moves forward.

“Along with all the other spoken word artists and organizers, we are ready to grow again.”

“Each slam has its own personality,” says co-host Jesse Lipman, “and we will develop that. A lot of it will come from the poets that are there.”

For Lipman, recognized as the godfather of Hawaii slam poetry, Hawaii Theatre Slam marks a reunion with a community he helped create.

“It’s feels great,” Lipman says, “I’m excited to be back. It’s unique to have three veteran poets and MCs collaborate and share the limelight, to build a solid foundation, with good connections to poets both locally and nationally.” He continues, “It’s also a very prestigious location. A lot of great acts have come through and it’s amazing to be in a quality space and have the support of the theatre behind us. It’s great to see them reaching out to the poetry audience.”

The success of Youth Speaks Hawaii and Hawaii Slam has made Honolulu into a nationally respected location for spoken word artists. The new slam hopes to contribute to and compliment the growth experienced within the community since Lipman’s own WordStew series in the early 2000’s.

“It was never my intention to start a slam scene in Honolulu,” says Lipman, “but audiences really took to those early underground slams. Then Kealoha and Hawaii Slam blew up and gave Hawaii a national presence. With the work that the Youth Speaks mentors and youth have done, along with all the other spoken word artists and organizers, we are ready to grow again.”

Gray adds, “We hope to add another quality poetry event to Honolulu and give the amazing talent pool we have here a variety of opportunities and stages to perform on. It’s been great to see the poetry slam community come together to make this a success.”

While the event currently as no date yet scheduled for October but a commitment for at least six first Fridays and firm dates for November and December already in place, Gray is confident that the new event will continue.

“If the theatre is already booked for another show, I will do my best to get an alternative date for that month,” she says. “But Hawaii Theatre has been kind enough to offer an outstanding venue and event staff, so we can’t argue with that.”

Promised a gorgeous venue, willing staff, and the theatre’s full support, the hosts are eager to see what the future will hold for Hawaii Theatre Slam.

“We have two rather contradictory goals,” Lipman says, “First, to have fun with a lot of feedback from the audience, a lively and exciting show, maybe noisier than other events people have gone to at the Theatre. Second, a lot of transparency on the scores and the rules. So we want it to be very official, but mixed with silliness.”

Gray adds: “Right now we are upstairs in the Weyand Room, but eventually, I would love to grow so big we have to move into the main theatre, maybe produce a major poetry show, like Def Poetry Jam did on Broadway.” She smiles with the same giddiness when she first saw her name on the marquee.

“My dreams are grand,” Gray says as she pauses to look over the exterior of the theatre again, “kinda like the Hawaii Theatre.” 

Hawaii Theatre Slam
Hawaii Theatre, second floor
1130 Bethel Street
Friday, September 3
Poet sign-up opens at 6:30 p.m., show begins at 7:00 p.m.
Free and open to all ages