Jamaicans come from all walks of life. This diversity is reflective of our national motto “Out of Many, One People.” All the people I have interviewed so far for the website, have been vibrant, intelligent, funny, easy and interesting people to talk with. This young man continues the trend and has had an amazing life so far, and is destined for great things in the future. I hope you enjoy reading about this young man as much as I have enjoyed chatting with him. He is definitely a Jamaican to watch.
Meet Gordon James, founder, creator, and sole actor/poet responsible for OUTBURSTS.
Q. Tell us about your life in Jamaica, where you went to school and what led you down the path to your present endeavour?
A: .I was born in Kingston and went to St Hugh’s Prep before my father was transferred with Colgate Palmolive to Toronto, Canada, when I was 7. I lived there till age 11 then he was transferred again to Nairobi, Kenya where my family and I resided till I was 13. Then it was off to Louisville, KY where I went to high school and did a few school plays and two feature length movies that my artistically inclined friends and I wrote, produced, and acted in, for our friends’ and families’ entertainment.
My real discovery of my joy for acting didn’t happen till I went to Dartmouth College and was coerced by my friend Shonda Rhimes, (screenwriter of HBO’s “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge”) to perform in a play she was directing for the Black Underground Theater Association (BUTA). I was hooked after that and performed in most of the BUTA productions that followed.
I graduated from Dartmouth and then decided to pursue my Masters in Acting at Brooklyn College a year later. During that time I also broke the rules and got an agent so I could get audition practice and was almost cast twice in New York Undercover. After getting my masters I had intended to move to LA and pursue my acting but needed to save some money. So I got a job at Verizon and met a young woman there who introduced me to the world of poetry and poetry slams. I found it extremely contagious and found myself writing poems in “bursts” like three at a time, then nothing for a while, then another three or four. When I would share these poems with my coworkers or perform them at poetry venues, people would often comment that I was telling “their story” or “they knew someone just like that”.
I believe this watered a seed of thought in my head to make each poem a character, and a few days short of my birthday OUTBURSTS was born. Originally 20 characters doing 20 poems, the show was 1:40 minutes long and I wanted it under 1:30 so I removed 3 characters to its present 17. I have been extremely blessed with my performances as the show has grown over the years through word of mouth, taking it to many venues in NYC, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. I am currently soliciting interest in a black college tour of the show for 2005.
I called the show outbursts because each of the poems literally “burst” out of me unannounced and I was driven to put them on paper.
Q. Describe your typical audience? That is, the composition in terms of ethnicity, age, seeming class and background.
A: So far my audience is primarily Afro-Americans and West Indians aged 22-50, although I have had several Caucasian audience members comment on how the work spoke to them as well. The message of the show is that love is universal, so all the characters and their poems speak to events in the arc of love that we all go through regardless of race, age, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender. All of the poems deal with love in some way, be it love of self or another, and they are lined up so they seemingly answer the previous poem even though each character is independent of the other.
For example, the Jamaican character ‘Lennox’ acts out the experience of waking up a lover in the morning with the words “I love you” and is immediately followed by the character ‘Brooklyn Girl’ who questions her lover on his proclaimed affection after such a short period of dating and accuses him of having a “premature infatuation”. Since each character follows the previous without a blackout or major costume change, it almost appears as if there is a flow of call and response between each character that allows the audience to travel through the show from beginning to end.
Q. Give us an example of the theme of a couple poems and how you translate that to the ‘character’ depiction and is this acting out of poetry your little idiosyncrasy, your calling card, so to speak?
A: Well I have a drag queen character named ‘Alexis’ in the show. She is a ‘typical’ quick-tongued and witty drag queen persona. Based on feedback I’ve gotten, she is one of the favorite characters of my audiences. However, because I portray both male and female characters, by the time the audience gets to Alexis, I think they are numbed to the shock value seeing a man in heels and a wig would normally have.
I actually open the show with a female dominatrix character named ‘Vixen’ who wears 6-inch stiletto heels and fishnets and this is to get the audience over seeing a male actor in drag right away. I want them to dump their inhibitions and prejudices at the door and see that beyond the ‘ whom’ to ‘what’ each character is saying. The characters are simply the messengers and, as is repeated throughout the show, ‘this could be ANYONE, outbursts me, outbursts you.’ The message is that LOVE is universal so, yes a character may be gay or old or female or different from you in a myriad of ways, but their MESSAGE still relates to you and you relate to it
As far as my calling card, I am known for my storytelling through poetry, even outside of the poems used for OUTBURSTS. I often write the poems as one character speaking to another about a situation. I also have a fan base for my erotic poetry performances that has developed as a result of my regular appearances at UrbanErotika, a monthly showcase for erotic poetry in New York. Very few of my poems are autobiographical, but are instead usually the result of me putting myself in a situation I’ve heard or read about.
Q. How do you term what it is you do?
A: I categorize the show as a regular theatrical production and really consider myself an actor. The irony of my having written the show is that I actually hate writing, so I don’t really sit down and do it that often. I only write when I have a strong story to tell. In this case I had 17 stories to tell. I have written several poems since the show and am trying to create a new show, but I want it to be a little different from OUTBURSTS so I have been brainstorming on how I want to do the second show, and what the concept or storyline will be to connect the poems.
Q How do your gay characters play to the predominantly black audience and in particular to the Caribbean audience? You do know that Jamaica has been undergoing world scrutiny re the supposed. Homophobia exhibited in the society as a whole?
A: My audiences so far seem to put the import of the message over which character (or the character’s sexuality) presented the message to them. I must say though, that as an actor I have made choices for one character to be a lesbian and there are two male characters apart from Alexis that could be gay, in an effort to give them an added dimension, but I am not sure it would matter to the audience which ones they are or even if they can tell. I feel this sort of inclusion does impact the show as OUTBURSTS has gained a large gay and lesbian following in addition to the heterosexual black female dominance that is evident in most of my audiences.
Of course, I have never done the show in the Caribbean, so I am not sure what the response would be there, but based on the Caribbean population that has seen it here in America, I think Caribbean audiences are intelligent enough to understand the message of the show without dwelling too long on who the characters are sleeping with.
So, to answer your question I have never received any negative feedback regarding characters being portrayed as gay, but I have received a lot of feedback with diverse groups of people saying “thank you for telling my story through that character” or “I know someone who would totally relate to that character”
Q How much would you attribute your unusual growing up, in terms of the countries you lived in, how much has that affected your choice in career? Has it been a rich source in the flushing and fleshing out of characters that you want to use? Take me through your creative process?
A: I think my having lived all over the world has made me very inclusive in my thinking as I deal with and relate to other people. It has further nurtured the belief my parents raised me under that love is the strongest force in nature, and that it is the common tie that binds all human beings to self and others. It is what brings down the walls of prejudice and injustice. As such, when I encounter a group of folks in my life who are different in some way, I choose to learn more about them instead of being afraid of their differences.
In all my travels I have yet to meet a group of people that is so vastly different that they cannot be understood. I don’t necessarily agree with what everyone stands for but I understand that at the core of his or her beliefs is what they LOVE most dearly and that binds them together as a group. I try to reflect that in my process and art, in the selection of characters. This is why I consciously choose to make my characters male, female, gay, straight, old, young, and so on.
Again, I only insisted that all the characters were black simply because I wanted to portray an array of black characters in the theater as we are so minimally presented, but I do believe with some minor adjustments that the poems could be performed by actors of other races or by women as well.
As far as which character does what in the creative process–that just seems to come at random. I see certain poems as more ‘female’ or ‘male’ first then I piece together what type of person the character is, based on the situation the poem describes.
Q. Poetry performance seems to be ‘in’ as exhibited by the HBO show. Have you ever appeared on that show?
A: I have often watched HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and have seen many friends and fellow poets appear on the show. The original executive producer came to see my show and loved it (his quote actually appears on my website), and I actually performed at the live showcase he used to sell the concept to HBO. It’s possible that I’ll appear on there at some point, but I think the fact that my poetry is performed “in character” makes it different from the poetry you see at showcases and poetry shows, so it might not ‘fit’ into such venues.
Q. What is your ultimate goal? Where do you want to see yourself and your ‘art-form’? What would be the ‘ultimate’ for you?
A: As far as my ultimate goal, I would like to continue to communicate stories that move me as well as others, whether or not I have written them. As such, I am now in the process of re-entering the theatrical world of agents and auditioning. I love acting and I love the challenge of creating whole new personalities separate from my own. At the time of this writing, I have just been offered a role in a new independent feature film by Maurice Jamal called “Dirty Laundry”. I’m excited to have the opportunity to move from theater to film, but I can’t see myself leaving the theater completely as I love the intimacy and personal contact it provides an actor with his audience.
You can learn more about the show and Gordon James, as well as join the mailing list at http://www.outbursts.net