The booze is top-shelf, the soul food is cheap and the poetry … well, the “poetry is therapy, y’all.” At least that’s what Mahogany Night’s host Marsha Carter says.
The riverside bar is dimly lit as Carter, a bombshell with a gleaming smile, steps into the spotlight to welcome the crowd. She breaks into a spoken-word piece entitled, “Exactly the Way I Look,” while the jazz band behind her ornaments her words with music. The scene provides a perfect snapshot of the weekly Thursday open mic/spoken word poetry event called Mahogany Nights, in the lounge (formerly the Key Club) on the second floor of the Magnolia soul food restaurant.
I might not be your right height/I might not be your right size
And you may be looking at me saying she’s definitely not my type
But God made me perfect in his sight
My thighs may be wide /my stomach may not be that tight
And if you look hard enough/ you gon’ find some cellulite
But, I ain’t jealous of you/ ain’t envying
Cuz God made me perfect exactly the way
The performer explains to the sparse crowd that the stage is an open forum — as long as you have something to say or do, you are welcome to take the mic.
Led by trumpeter Solomon Parham, the band continues to play sultry bebop as people dine on divine-smelling soul food, washing down their meals with colorful martinis and glasses of wine. It’s obvious that this isn’t your coffee shop-type poetry night. Mahogany Nights has got soul. And no, it’s not the kind of soul for folks who are predisposed to recreating chapters in a Kerouac novel. This is Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” kind of soul.
Unabashedly, poets take the microphone to talk about deep passion and hot sex, egomaniacal exes and life’s many tragedies. Some sing scat, some hum softly into the mic as if it were the ear of close friend.
The lounge offers an intimate atmosphere. All night, the vibe is of a tucked-away speakeasy hidden from the rest of the bustling city, a secret to be discovered.
A statuesque woman by the name of Rhapsody approaches the mic.
“Don’t blame me if I didn’t use my body and used my mind,” she coos. The jazz band plays on. A musician by the name of Cornelius “JooJoo” Johnson puts down his wine glass and jams with the band. He plays his sax and flute … the drinks flow.
After the impromptu jazz, a young woman by the name of Deidre Smith takes the spotlight. The Jill Scott doppelgänger — replete with cornrows in front and an Afro in back — commands the crowd with complete confidence. She sings scat and recites a poem about why the “hood is what I’ve grown fond of.” The song is a call out to those who may not understand her. It’s a piece of who she is and we feel her.
Smith, a 21-year-old Detroit native, admits that her inspiration comes from spoken word icon Nikki Giovanni.
“My poetry is really just an ego trip. It’s empowerment,” says Smith.
She explains that her life’s ambition is to be an R&B singer.
By the second set, the crowd has thickened. More than 100 people fill the room and body heat begins to permeate the air. A spindly young man who goes by the name of Morris Stegasaurus goes next. His poem is a rapid-fire chronology of one man’s banal existence: At breakneck speed, Stegasaurus documents the character’s life from age “2-point-5” to the time “he divorces his third trophy wife.” The social commentary is hilarious, if not uncomfortably familiar.
Then a guy named Versus takes the mic — his name is familiar. His face is too. He warns the still-chuckling crowd, “I bring word from darker places.” And he does. His poem is heavy-hearted and sincere. He’s a pro.
A nervous-looking young woman follows Versus. She proceeds to recite a first-person poem about the night she was raped by her uncle. It’s uncomfortable and cathartic. The boys in the band shake their head in sympathy; the crowd claps loudly.
Having gone through a haze of improvised singing, jazz, poetry and spoken word, laughter and tragedy, it seems this was a Thursday night well spent. As I walk out the door accompanied by Brubeck’s “Take Five,” the spirit of the evening leaves me wishing I’d taken the stage. Maybe next time.
Mahogany Nights Open Mic Night is every Thursday evening from 8 p.m. to midnight at Magnolia (1440 E. Franklin St., Detroit). There is a Thursday-night-only $5 “Mahogany Menu” which includes chicken wings, catfish sandwiches, po’ boys, chicken-fried steak and more. Call 313-393-0018 for more information.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.