L-Vis Comes Alive: Kevin Coval’s Alter-Ego from Page to Stage

An advance review of Kevin Coval’s L-Vis Live, opening at Victory Gardens Theater on March 27.

One day, only a few weeks after I had moved to Chicago, Kevin Coval rolled up as a guest speaker to my Introduction to Poetry classroom. It’s a story you’ll hear again and again from young poets in Chicago, and in many other places where youth poetry is fledgling; as the co-founder of Louder Than A Bomb, the world’s largest youth poetry festival with an award-winning documentary of the same name, Coval has exposed young poets to artistic territory few are brave enough to tread. Already a twice-published author and original HBO Def Poet, Coval has continously demonstrated an astute cultural awareness through both his efforts as an artist and as an organizer. The oft described hip-hop poet lives and works in Chicago, one of the United State’s most segregated cities, where a discussion of race  is far from absent. Continuously, Coval has approached issues of race within his work with a fluidity that is almost disarming. As Patricia Smith states in the book’s introduction:

I bet I’m not the only person who thought Kevin Coval was Black. Hell, he’s so chilly and unflappable I don’t even look hard. He argues loud with Black folks about Black stuff, and sometimes he wins. He strides past in his vests and hats and cigarette slims, and I see the sisters giving him the appraising side-eye. He is an undisputed master of the lyric drop, a hip-hop historian, and every word he speaks has the brand of languid street drip that can only be earned by beatdown or blood.

I got my hands on a copy of Kevin’s book at an open mic where he featured some of his set in preparation for his one-man show, L-Vis Live. In this book, Coval demonstrates an inate ability to evoke an overarching narrative of his alter-ego, L-Vis, who discovers hip-hop in the 80’s and grows to confront a deep conflict of identity, calling into question a repeated history of white artists who made their stake to fame and fortune through appropriating the styles of black artists. Like Coval’s previous works, the book also possesses a distinctive lyrical style that’s made a name of hip-hop poetics, executing a collection that incorporates both narrative and lyric styles in a way totally demonstrative of the current state of poetics. The result is a tour-de-force of what is sure to be as groundbreaking to the perceived poetry canon as it is to its discussion of artistic appropriation. In an article from the Chicago Sun-Times, Coval states:

“This is a story that’s based on 150 years of American cultural history … There have been a lot of different historic white boys who have been drawn to black cultural redemption. Rather than examining the lives of these men individually, this show is about the phenomenon and the archetype of the white boy in a black mask.”

While such an undertaking could easily be construed to focus on white guilt, L-Vis is instead a firm recognition of the heritage within American art and entertainment. Coval critiques the persistent prevalence in the commercialization of art forms and genres formed by black artists, such as in his poem, “Vanilla Ice on the Arsenio Hall Show,” which is a found poem taken from an actual interview. The book is broken up into three acts that chronicle L-Vis’s journey through stages of both reverence and anguish as he becomes more and more influenced and immersed in black culture and history.

While not undermining issues of appropriation, Coval also demonstrates a deep-seeded appreciation for the heritage of the music he loves, as well as a tradition of political dissent–a history frequently unknown to white people, when not obscured.

[…]there was apartheid in the schools. apartheid in the lessons we sat thru. nelson mandela was in america. his name was chuck d. his name was krs-one. what is a Black Panther? there is apartheid of the bus home. there is apartheid in the lunchroom. the sides of the city we don’t visit. we were told not to. there is apartheid on the television. bill cosby aside.

there was a tape deck. a walkman. there was no apartheid in the music. no seperation in the library. books endlessly check-out-able. there was Holden. the hero Huey P. the wandering protagonist in the midst of all the quiet. the music truthed. the music was middle finger fuck you. […]

excerpted from “the crossover”

Kevin Coval has teamed up with prolific director Jess McLeod in a transformative stage adaptation of the book entitled L-Vis Live! I had the good fortune of being able to catch an advanced preview of the show, which is premiering to the public on March 27th at the Victory Gardens Theater. While the book itself has already taken strides in a new direction in terms of poetics and politics, the one-man-show also paves the way for a new meaning behind experimental theatre. Coval, already an innate performer of his own poetry, cuts his acting chops by fully inhabiting his L-Vis persona on stage. Moreover, the collaborative adaptation for theatre allows for an euphonic blending of genres that includes a fully-realized stage design; what appears to be a basement ideal for teenage recluses, the entire stage houses L-Vis’s discovery to hip-hop stardom, and subsequent reaction as he is forced to come to terms with the reasons for his success. Incorporating towers of televisions, projected text and images, intricate lighting, and voiceover audio, this nod toward mediums other than performance poetry allows for pop cultural elements to be even more prominent in this production, while permitting for more direct interactions within cross-textual references.

While not all of Coval’s poems made it to the stage production of L-Vis, the invitation of new theatrics does not inhibit his lyric style. Rather, the one-act play maintains the book’s progressive three-act structure, beginning with L-Vis in 1988 with the explosion of hip-hop and leading up to the present day. Similar to the final section of the book, “whiteboy i could’ve been: a suite for John Walker Lindh,” the end of L-Vis Live utitlizes a reversal in the order of poems building to a finale equally heart-wrenching as inspiring.

I’m excited to see where Coval takes L-Vis–and the rest of us–in the next year. The book was released in December to rave reviews from Studs Terkel, Bill Ayers, and Mos Def, among others, and the show, premiering within a week, is sure to receive only more applause from audiences and critics alike.

In a Q&A after the show, I asked Coval if he had faced any criticism for his work, and how he had responded to it. With a shy smile, he responded, “Only from white people, and Zionists…” Coval continued that he was prepared for, and welcomed, critique, demonstrating a convicted ambivalence necessary when carrying out such an homage.

In my adult life, I’ve often questioned what the position of art as culture could be in a world so riddled with injustice, where direct action is far more imperative than raising awareness. In all honesty, it’s artists like Kevin Coval that carry the importance of this conversation, creating works that spark discussion while also dedicating their lives to carrying out arts-organizing in a way that can tangibly benefit those who need it most. In the artistic spectrum of Coval’s career, as well as the larger discussion of poetry in culture, L-Vis will prove to be a pivotal work–a piece of fearless testimony to insurmountable struggle in this unflinching and difficult world. Nevertheless, L-Vis left me reinvigorated, something that will prove to be shared by other audiences in coming weeks as the show opens to the public.

I highly recommend Kevin’s book as well as the stage adaptation of “L-Vis Lives.” Such a work is all too timely within our culture’s narrative.

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