This is The Art House, just one open-mic night in Jersey City dedicated to showcasing local and national talent - featuring spoken-word artists, musicians and performance artists. The Art House is held every month at Victory Hall and hosted by the eternally happy Christine Goodman. Tonight she's wearing black-and-white, horizontally striped tights that accentuate her enthusiasm as she jumps from side to side, curls of hair springing joyously, raising her arms in the air, and calling the next artist up for their five minutes of fame.
The crowd, mesmerized by her electricity, hoots and claps in response.
The Art House is a thriving venue with an avid following. An edited version of the night airs on Jersey City Comcast and the Manhattan Neighborhood Network.
"We are about taking risks onstage," Goodman says. She embraces community at Art House by first asking the crowd to look around at the people next to them, introduce themselves, talk to each other, and get comfortable. She says it creates an aura of easiness that allows people to muster the courage to stand up and share their thoughts and talents.
As the next act comes onstage, a young man with dirty blonde dreadlocks falling out of a wool hat sits next to a conservative-looking older man with cropped black hair. Both take in a woman's poem about an estranged marriage.
"I don't go to bars or movies, so this is what I do for entertainment," says one local business owner and Jersey City resident of 12 years. "Without these venues, you wouldn't know the talent was here."
Just a few blocks from The Art House is the late-night spot The Waterbug Hotel's Freeform Thurzdayze. Originator Lex Leonard is trying to get things started by 10 p.m. But his young fans rule the house, rolling into Rolon's Bar (also known as the Keyhole Bar) at 11 or later.
Look for the keyhole-shaped windows on the corner of Erie and Bay Streets. Visitors enter the intimate bar occupied by elder barflies, then head for the back to gain entrance to the underground space where The Waterbug resides. As they descend the steps, a heady aroma of spicy incense hits their noses, and the black-and-white diamond vinyl flooring glows from the red mood lighting, calling guests to dance to the rhythmic sounds booming from the speakers. A DJ spins head-bobbing R&B and hip-hop classics, while the mostly male, twenty-something attendees anticipate the first performance.
Jolted from their seats, the crowd is pumped by the mind-blowing operatic voice of Jersey City artist and Waterbug host Bio Lumin. This young, spirited woman - with a Rita Hayworth-inspired hairstyle, arms draped in a black spider-web-like material, and donning cherry red contacts - sings an elegant yet powerful rendition of "La Boheme" mixed with a current, Gwen-Stefani-like sound that is as original as her fashion sense.
Also in the house tonight is renowned spoken-word artist Survivor, a.k.a. John Blake. The 36-year-old New York native and 2007 Urbana Grand Slam Finalist has been attending The Waterbug for years. "Here, you can go up there and make a mistake," he says. "It gives you the creative freedom."
If Survivor made any gaffes tonight, they were buffered by his thunderous recitals of gut-wrenching, moving poetry that tell of personal experiences, drug dependence and war.
As my mother lay dying, I brushed her hair, begging, strands of memories to reveal that younger version of her face, hair cascading to the floor...
A core group of Jersey City artists travel from one open mic to the next, to try out new work and get some practice in front of a crowd. One Sunday afternoon at Rock Soup's Erie Street location near Hamilton Park, Carol Lester, a singer and guitar player, does just that.
As Lester plays a song about war and peace, her soul pours through her silken voice. The listeners seated at booths and small tables join in as several tap their feet, a forty-something woman crashes a tambourine into her denim-clad thigh, and others sing the chorus along with her.
Another open-mic regular is singer/songwriter/guitarist Glen Coleman. He coordinated Rock Soup's first open mic to give local musicians a place to jam. "We tend to stay in our apartments alone and work on our music," he says. "I thought it was a good idea to get us all together."
Open mics are just part of the recipe for Rock Soup. A startup artists' collective new to the scene, Rock Soup was formed last August by three locals - artist Nyugen Smith, photographer Garfield Hall, and John Ruddy, a painter and Fire Captain of the city's Engine 5. "Someone has to pay the bills," says Ruddy, 34, a graduate of Rutgers University's art history program.
After hitting all three of these diverse open-mic nights, the queen of slam (competition) poetry, 38-year-old Dujuana Sharese, heads to her own monthly event, The Cypher Movement, an all-out, explosive two-and-a-half-hour affair at Jordan's Lounge. It features some of the finest spoken-word artists in the New Jersey-New York area and a live performance-art piece taking place concurrently offstage.
"Her energy is incredible," says 31-year-old Rico Steal, who performs at The Cypher Movement and got his start at The Art House. He credits both Goodman and Sharese for inspiring his writing and staying on the open-mic circuit.
Sharese is an eight-time slam poetry winner, but she'd never let you know it. She's here to promote the local talent by hosting The Cypher Movement, a competitive performance poetry event with changing themes. Dujuana swings her hips around the stage, pumping up the crowd with music and her biting tongue, readying them to hear powerful words flare from the lips of the featured poets. Each passionate line spoken fills the dark-paneled space with red-hot flames that spark a fire within each listener's soul.
Each event sets aside 45 minutes for poets to come into the spotlight and perform one poem prior to the main act, which features four poets. The four slammers are judged by three people picked from the crowd before the night begins. Each performer is rated on a scale from 1 to 10, based on content and performance. The winner takes home a cash prize - it's the only Jersey City open mic to offer an award.
On this particular night, Jersey City's first poet laureate, Middlepoet, rocked the mic with his powerful words about race and politics. "It's the only time I don't worry about anything," says Middlepoet of performing onstage. He says he's loved being the center of attention since he was a kid. It's easy to see when he walks onstage, Sharese pumps up the volume, and they dance together briefly before he recites his poem to the packed house.
The 29-year-old Middlepoet - born Aaron Jackson, son of novelist Blyden Jackson - has been involved with the arts scene in Jersey City for three years. He's watched the revival of the city's arts scene, with hundreds of artists' studios and now four organizations with viable stages for residents to come out and express themselves. He and Lex Leonard are planning to publish a regular literary magazine, filled with poems from local poets.
"We want to promote the city and get the voice of the community out," he says.
The Art House
First Thursday of every month, 7:45 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Victory Hall, 186 Grand St.
Every Thursday night, 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Rolon's Basement Lounge, 7 Erie St.
$3 admission, Must be 21 or older
Every Saturday night, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Project 001 Gallery, 131 Erie St.
The Cypher Movement
Fourth Friday of every month, 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Jordan's Lounge, 247 Newark Ave.
$7 admission, Must be 21 or older