Local Arts

BOOM Charlotte showcases experimental performance art for mainstream audiences

Behind the scenes before BOOM Charlotte showcases performance art in Plaza Midwood

BOOM Charlotte will have a variety of art forms, including one-person performances, poetry and dance. BOOM will be held April 26-28, 2019.
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BOOM Charlotte will have a variety of art forms, including one-person performances, poetry and dance. BOOM will be held April 26-28, 2019.

The difference between fans of mainstream culture and fans of BOOM Charlotte is exactly one punctuation mark.

Mainstreamers read about “The Sacrament of Reconciliation,” where audience members make bread in someone’s home while meditating on their own lives, and ask, “This is art?” BOOMers respond, “This is art!”

Ditto for the one-person show by Melissa “Gangsta Care Bear” Harris, who tells stories “through the lens of a bougie, chubby, menopausal, 50-year-old black Buddhist with no sexual gender preference.” Or “Unicorn in the Forest,” a show by Sinergismo — still unclassifiably wild after 17 years — in which trees come to life and a snaggle-toothed unicorn grants a runaway from modern civilization an existence-changing wish.

BOOM has become an ever-growing tradition in its fourth year, buoyed by a three-year grant of $100,000 from the Miami-based Knight Foundation and the conviction that Charlotte needs to establish more outposts along its artistic borders.

The fest will park itself in Plaza Midwood again April 26-28, erecting its Intersection Stage where Thomas and Commonwealth avenues meet. There you can see free performances in a kind of outdoor living room, complete with couches and a fire pit. You can also walk to more than 30 performances by 19 artists or groups — the largest number yet — in the BOOM Fringe, where most shows last 30 to 45 minutes and all cost $10. Street art and pop-up performances appear at five spots in this four-block wonderland.

Wander around from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. to midnight Saturday or 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, letting whimsy guide you. (Find the slate of performers at http://boomcharlotte.org/schedule/.) Or, if you’re wary, spend $40 for a Spark Tour with poet/raconteur Boris “Bluz” Rogers, a BOOM alum. He’ll choose for you on Saturday and Sunday, leading you through a minifest of three events plus an audience talkback and a meet-and-greet with an artist.

Either way, you can expect two things. First, you will at some point shake your head and wonder whether you understand what’s going on. No problem there, said festival programmer Camerin Watson. “It’s OK for an audience to get something different from what the artist intended. Audiences who bring something of their own to these events will enjoy the weird stuff better.” Second, you will probably find yourself in front of a one-person show, a dramatic monologue possibly interspersed with music or dance. The 2019 Fringe offers half a dozen of these (also the largest number yet), and local poets have begun to pass a generational torch within BOOM.

Two years ago, Bluz and Carlos Robson held the stage. Last year, they counseled and inspired Jay Ward to do the same in “Things I Would Say,” about conversations he’d like to have with his father, who died 21 years before. This year, Ward drapes the mantle over Frederick “Breeze the Poet” Eberhardt, whose “Love Anyway” explores “a black man and his relationships with love. Wanting it, having it, losing it, chasing it, realizing he never had it in the first place, figuring out how to actually obtain it. The will to love and the demons that possess it. “

Charlotte has produced a rich crop of slam poets over two decades, including a SlamCharlotte team that won the National Poetry Slam last year. (Breeze and Ward both compete regularly.) But as Watson said, BOOM projects “have to be cohesive. The defining thing is that these can’t just be shows you could do elsewhere.”

So although Ward said slam poets espouse the motto “Get Free,” freedom at BOOM comes with unique responsibilities. “The hardest part for a poet is constructing a narrative,” Ward said. “Carlos and Bluz and Q (Quentin Talley) came to my living room and guided me through the process, and I wrote three drafts and seven revisions. I was tearing away the calluses that had built up over time, being as honest as I could. It’s a constant unlocking (of yourself).

”You pay attention to this audience differently than at a slam. You’re able to improvise. You can say something random, and if you get a response, you go with it. I’d say something I thought was mildly funny and get a big laugh. Then I’d say something I thought was really funny, and they wouldn’t laugh as much.”

Breeze listened and learned, yet he said Ward has mainly been helpful in providing “the support and confirmation that I could do this. There’s been a lot of second-guessing and soul-searching, because I never thought I could pull together this event.

“When you speak a poem, you’re not playing a character. In this show, the character is me. I have to create a story around him, and I’ll play other people as well. I already had the poems in my head, but connecting them was tough. Running through my mind was, ‘My mom’s not going to like this!’ I want no layers between me and the audience. I’m telling the truth about love.”

Watson said self-revelatory, one-person shows have become a trend among fringe festivals everywhere, even the granddaddy of them all in Edinburgh, Scotland. (There’s a U.S. Association of Fringe Festivals that BOOM hasn’t yet joined.)

Though she and the other programmers had to invite artists for the first two years, they’ve gotten “a ton of fabulous submissions in 2018 and 2019.” They try to balance genres, and their job’s a gamble: Applying artists submit a 200-word description of their projects and samples of previous pieces, yet Watson and crew know they’ll probably create something new for BOOM.

“Often, we’re not sure if something will work,” Watson admitted. “This year’s ‘Threads and Shadows’ is a dance mash-up between a choreographer from Greensboro (Alexandra Joye Warren) and one from Charlotte (Sarah Council) who’ve never met before. It’s important to treat this as an experiment.” (The website says the piece “takes Alexandra Warren’s ‘Slaying Ghosts’ and Sarah Council’s ‘A History of Dirt’ and deconstructs them before weaving them back together as a diverse whole.”)

The 32 free performers at the Intersection stage are often but not always more conventional. That’s where the Tosco Music Party, Charlotte Symphony and One Voice Chorus have a presence, though not always the kind you’d expect: Opera Carolina will model the work of designers who recycle printed marketing material into couture fashion. (So far, claims the publicity sheet, 36,000 pages have been saved from landfills.)

There you’ll see Lundgren Street Circus perform “Mythical Charlotte,” Soca Fit USA teach you to “wind your waist” with Caribbean Carnival-style moves, or Artist Universe “venture into the world of photography, videography, body painting and dance.”

BOOM perennially serves a palate-stretching tapas plate because it wants to attract everyone from families with toddlers to hard-core avant-gardists. It offers a preview party April 25 from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at NODA Brewing (2921 N. Tryon St.) to ease newcomers into the concept.

And it keeps a tight rein on prices: $10 not only for Fringe performances but also after-parties at Snug Harbor, Petra’s Bar, Open Door Studio, Rabbit Hole and Coaltrane’s.

“You’re not paying $100 to see a show or giving up two hours for one performance,” Watson said. “We want people to sample as much as they can.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.