Jahnl Lofton is a slam poet — a spoken-word performer judged on her ability to make those within earshot think and feel. And if tonight's routine is
any indication, she's a damn good one.
Fifteen minutes ago, Lofton was sitting at the bar inside downtown's GrumBar (306 Main), silent and unassuming, just another member of the mostly black audience enjoying the evening's mostly good poetry performances.
But now she's at the mike, fully combustible. Her booming cadence is in complete command of the room. It's one of the few times today the crowd is exclusively attentive, a courtesy not extended to the uninspiring.
For the past two minutes, Lofton has been hollering about why females who want a quality man need to better themselves ("Good brothers want substance, niggas want something"). It's completely easy to forget that you're at a bar and grill located in the thick of Main Street's scenester madness, well within walking distance of ten or 11 different nightlife locations.
"This is somewhere to go that's an alternative," says Shanie Gould-Thibodeaux, a regular/performer at most any poetry event in town. "Some people don't wanna dance, they wanna do something intelligent. For me, I'd rather listen to poetry any night."
GrumBar, named after an old friend of the owner who had the unfortunate luck of being nicknamed "Grum" – he can't possibly be a handsome man, right? – is a little over a year old. It's sandwiched between Martell's Video Lounge (308 Main) and Collin's Chop House and Whiskey Bar (301 Main).
Since late February, GrumBar has hosted Say It Again! Fridays. The weekly spoken-word event featuring several of Houston's prominent performance poets was originally a stopgap replacement for a comedy night where some of the performers were a little too adult for the venue's family-friendly aspirations. But, occasional N-bomb aside, the poets have been a hit, even if the venue isn't exactly cut out for that artsy sort of thing.
The place is narrow, maybe 20 feet wide, and does have a brick wall for poets to stand in front of, which we assume is mandatory. The tall ceiling makes the space seem bigger than its 98-person occupancy limit would indicate. But beyond that, it's basically a classy sports bar with fewer TVs. (Three, if you're counting.)
GrumBar has a solid wine and beer selection to accompany the full kitchen that stays open until closing time, and a general ambience that teeters between funky and commercial. But that's why it's odd.
It seems perfectly suited to serve the needs of the office workers who characterize the whiter, more typical weekday happy-hour crowd, or even the post-Astros-game spillover the club hopes to attract this season. (Ticket stubs are good for a 10 percent discount on your bill, advises management.)
So watching Say It Again! at GrumBar feels a little like eating in a Red Lobster full of hippies. Were it not for Friday nights, the bar would almost certainly lose the bit of bohemian character the poets provide. It turns out, though, that that isn't exactly a big concern.
"Ideally, we want to serve a neighborhood and tourist crowd," says manager John Li. "We have [Say It Again!] on Fridays, and it's better than having no crowd, but it's not really what we're trying to build on. If another promoter comes along that has something better, we'll get a contract with them."
As it is now, only a few other places in town host regular spoken-word events. Most prominent are the three-year-old Tuesday event at Mr. A's (3409 Cavalcade) and the nine-year-old Sunday-evening show at Shadow Bar (213 Milam).
Considering local performance poets' following is not exactly huge, Li's comments might sound a little alarming. But apparently, the possible loss of their present home isn't a big concern for those wily wordsmiths, either.
"We'll just move to a new venue," laughs Black Snow, the promoter/performer who organizes Say It Again! "We have venues all over the city asking us to do for them what we've done at GrumBar. That's why we've been around for so long. There's always going to be a place for poetry in Houston."
It's always weird to ask out loud if anyone saw where "Outspoken Bean" went. But after a performer by that name dropped the evening's most memorable line ("Man has mapped out the entire universe using an arms-length telescope, but there's no prescription for the common cold?"), we felt compelled to search him out. Bean, as it happens, is actually a founding member of Prairie View A&M's Slam Poetry Team.
Last year he coached them to the Region 12 title and the No. 8 ranking at College Union's Poetry Slam Invitational. He's a key figure in Houston's growing population of slam enthusiasts, particularly among the college-age segment. You can learn more about him at his Web site, www.outspokenbean.com, as well as read an interview with him and hear a few of his performance pieces exclusively on www.blogs.houstonpress.com/rocks.