- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - It would be hard to believe it was a Tuesday night if the event’s name didn’t give it away.

Like clockwork, the tables at Addis Ethiopian Restaurant in Shockoe Bottom fill up and spectators of the open mic Tuesday Verses are left to sit on the stairs in the back.

The house band slowly gears up for another night - tuning, chatting and softly playing along with music. The lights dim, the lengthy sign-up sheet ensures the night will be a long one, and the audience prepares to hear original songs, poetry and rap from established artists and amateurs alike.

It’s a piece of what open mic means to Richmond, a city steeped in the arts and full of emerging artists trying to get exposure for their work. The venues also serve people who just want an outlet for pent-up emotions and to hear the intimate stories of people they’ve never met. Some of those strangers become family over time.

Lorna Pinckney, host and founder of Tuesday Verses, takes to the mic first to remind the audience why they’re there.

“When someone comes to the stage, I don’t want to see any of this,” she says, offering a quiet golf clap. Instead, she instructs the crowd to applaud like the person just saved your family from a house fire - a time-tested method of easing the terror of getting on stage to share intimate thoughts before a group of strangers.

A few blocks east, there are cars stacked behind one another in front of Poe’s Pub on a recent Tuesday night. No one plans on leaving anytime soon.

Inside, there are guitar cases stacked behind a few tables as their owners wait their turn to take the carpeted stage lit by just a red neon light trim around the ceiling and a spotlight. There’s a stool by the piano and candles on the tables as Terry Desta prepares to sing an original song.

“I wrote this song when I was spiritually dry,” she said to the audience, telling of her songwriting experience since the 1970s. “Then it turned into a song about my dad’s ranch. My dad never had a ranch.”

Her young friend, Elliot Johnson, from her church’s worship team, takes the stage after her and performs a cover of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” earning some sing-alongs from the beer-sipping crowd. A couple - she in a sun dress and he in a Hawaiian shirt - celebrating the woman’s birthday danced cheek-to-cheek close to the stage.

It’s the low-key atmosphere that keeps them coming back. A place to try out new songs without fear of judgement or to just enjoy the thrill of performing on stage.

Matt Sease, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and former “American Idol” contestant, commands the audience’s attention with a cutting voice.

“Do you want to hear an original or a cover?” he asks, strumming his guitar.

“Original!” one shouts.

“Both!” another shouts, which prompts chuckles among the attendees.

“When you come regularly, it’s a music family,” Sease said after opting for an original. “What’s great is you can take something you were working on that day and try it out. It’s nice to play somewhere with no pressure. You feel more free on stage.”

The “open” in open mic is really important, said Sudan Aunu, the organizer of Lyricist Lab! at Cary100 Restaurant and Lounge who goes by the stage name “Real True Poet.”

Lyricist Lab! emerged from a prison writing workshop Aunu attended. Five years into his own incarceration, Aunu performed a poem about a man and his son escaping a slave ship by swimming to shore. When they reached the shore, the man started rejoicing until he realized his son had stopped breathing.

“To look out and see grown men cry …” he said. “That was a real transition for me. … It’s a much better way to tell your story than a rap sheet.”

“People really have a lot to say. You’ll be amazed by the stories you hear,” Aunu said. Once, a homeless man walked in off the street during an open mic and asked if he could share something.

“And we let him,” Aunu said. The poem’s central message: Don’t judge me. “He blew everybody away.”

Another time, a 102-year-old woman shared a poem from her grandmother’s perspective crying over her daughter’s experience under Jim Crow laws, comparing it to the slavery she endured. Even a 4-year-old has graced the stage, singing for a while before her mother joined in.

Jamil Jasey, a local activist and organizer of Sol Café at the Richmond Public Library Main Branch, said this kind of expression is vital to a people’s ability to understand not only their own stories but those around them. Next year, Jasey said, he will lead Richmond Public School’s first poetry competition team at Huguenot High School.

“Like in any culture, the poet is the storyteller connecting the past to the present and the present to the future. That’s a big responsibility,” he said. “You’re doing poems to tell your stories, but you don’t know how it will affect someone else.”

The format varies from group to group.

Classical Revolution RVA, a chamber music group, takes Bach to bars and includes participants on sight-reading chamber music for its public jam sessions and encourages instrumentalists to bring a piece to its open mics. Ashland Coffee and Tea in Hanover County hosts “The Songwriter’s Showdown” where the audience and a small panel decide the best original song performer, who earns a cash prize.

In South Richmond, Slam Richmond takes the stage in an old car repair shop across from Plant Zero Café every Saturday, just as it has for nearly a decade. The crowd is decidedly younger and many of the poets are in high school.

There’s no food or drinks to complement the art, just fold-up chairs and a simple stage with a single microphone. A Slam Richmond student team formed on this stage in 2012 and went on to place third in the international competitive poetry festival Brave New Voices.

After a late-afternoon poetry workshop on a recent Saturday, the first performer, Lydia Armstrong, steps onto the stage with cat-eye glasses, a high-waisted red skirt and a firestorm of passion packed into her words. Each hard-hitting word is met with snaps and nods of approval. Later, a Huguenot High School wrestler clad in green knee-high socks with a lightning bolt on them has the audience in a steady stream of laughter at his light and comical raps and poems.

But the moment many eagerly await is a new performer taking the stage for the first time.

A teen named Carter in a bright blue polo with sneakers to match held onto handwritten notes as if he was scared to lose them before his name was called. When he took the stage, he spoke in a near monotone that contrasted with the heavy and powerful words about a father who died from heroin addiction and the struggles that were passed along to the son.

Members of the audience looked at one another in near disbelief and shrieked in approval as he returned to his seat - relaxed with his arm stretched on the back of the chair next to him where his poem lay bare for the rest of the world to see.

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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