Kevin Coval | Performer of the week

Kevin Coval in L-Vis Live!

Kevin Coval in L-Vis Live! Photograph: courtesy of Victory Gardens Theater

In L-Vis Live!, poet Kevin Coval introduces audiences to L-Vis, a white boy from the suburbs hoping to follow in the footsteps of rappers like Vanilla Ice, The Beastie Boys, and Eminem. Based on Coval’s book L-Vis Lives!: Racemusic Poems, the one-man show looks at the struggles of white artists to gain legitimacy in the hip-hop community. Coval, co-founder and artistic director of Young Chicago Authors and the teen poetry festival Louder Than a Bomb, gives a dynamic performance in the title role, which showcase his impressive control of language in a surprisingly physical production. Coval speaks to us about the birth of L-Vis, the challenges of adapting a book of poetry for the stage, and the importance of welcoming the city’s youth to its cultural institutions.

When did you first become interested in poetry?

I grew up in Northbrook, just north of the city, and started to get into poetry because of hip-hop music. Hip-hop was kind of responsible for making me want to do anything—leave the house, read a book, pick up a pen, move around, navigate public transit—all because of hip-hop. And the MCs I was listening to at the time called themselves poets: KRS-One and Chuck D, other folks that considered themselves poets. And they also sent me to the library. I would spend time in the stacks of the Northbrook Public Library trying to find the references that these folks were talking about in the music.

And it was in those stacks that I found, via the name dropping they were doing, I found the black arts poets—Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka—and it was in those books and some of those anthologies and their individual collections that I really was drawn to the idea of writing poetry as opposed to writing only rhymes. The notion for what I thought was possible with language dramatically expanded once I discovered those poets. That brought me to everything: writing my own poems, wanting to be a poet.  Hip-hop brought me to Chicago. I got a fake ID when I was 17, not so I could party, but so I could go listen to Jesse De La Pena play music at the Elbo Room and start going to hip-hop shows and begin to hang out in some of the public cultural spaces that hip-hop had.

How did the L-Vis project begin?

[L-Vis Lives!] is my third book of poems, and it was published in the fall. But the idea for the book came around ’99 maybe, so a while ago. The idea for the book came from a long conversation I had with Billy Upski, another white boy hip-hop artist from Chicago. He wrote a book called Bomb the Suburbs, then No More Prisons and a couple other books. He was basically trying to do some critical white studies stuff with white people, particularly a white journalist from The New York Times who didn’t understand what he was trying to do. So there’s an article that came out about Billy in ’99 in The New York Times, they were doing a profile on race over the course of the year, and they profiled Billy and a hip-hop organizer from Detroit, and the article didn’t do Billy justice. We had a long conversation about a number of things, particularly about a white person who is anti-racist trying to explain to other white people about race and Billy’s travails with that. And so the idea for an L-Vis character in some ways emerged after that conversation, and I’ve been writing poems since then.

How much of Kevin is in L-Vis?

Part of the reason why I was able to write the book is because my own narrative was comparable to what I perceived to be these archetypes in American history. My own narrative was close enough to Eminem’s narrative, or Vanilla Ice’s or The Beasties Boys’ or John Walker Lindh’s or Elvis Presley’s. So all these stories began to congeal for me. They’re not the same story by any means, but there was enough in common between my own story and the stories of these other white boys who were fascinated and drawn in to black culture that this larger L-Vis character began to take root. And certainly some of it is me, but a lot of it’s not. A lot of it’s based on the real lives of these other folks, or from conversations I’ve had with other white boys.

What were some of the challenges you had in adapting a book of poetry into a full-scale stage production? I know you do a lot of slam poetry.

It was a great process as a performer to go through that experience. I do longer sets with poems when I have a book. When I’m touring a book, I’ll do a 30–40 minute set at times, but to stand on stage for an hour, memorized, and be active and move around has been a growth experience for me.  And it’s been great. The creative team that’s working on the project, I’ve learned a lot from them, and I think that they’re phenomenal, from Jess McLeod, the director, to all the other folks. The lighting, costume and set designers, and certainly the video and sound production of Brett Neiman has all really aided the story I’m trying to tell. So it’s expanding the possibilities of how I can conceivably show and relate to an audience this narrative that I’m telling. To go from 80-some pages in a book to a live, living, breathing, multi-sensory hour has been great and exciting for me.

Can you tell us a bit about the decision to offer free tickets to Chicago Public School students?

It’s something that’s important to me, and something that I think is also important to Victory Gardens. I work with a lot of high school students in Louder Than a Bomb and at Young Chicago Authors, where I’m the artistic director, and I think with all of the cultural institutions that exist in Chicago, they need to be expansive in terms of who they consider to be their audience. If they want a new audience in their space, whether it’s the Art Institute or the opera or a place like Victory Gardens, they need to welcome young people and invite them into the space. Traditionally, young people in the city, and young people of color in particular, are not always welcomed into spaces. Oftentimes, they are criminalized when they enter a space or they feel like at least the space is not for them.

Part of what I’m certainly interested in doing, with not only my work but with the work I do on a regular basis at Young Chicago Authors, is to let young people know that the world is broad, it’s for them. If they want to participate in it in any way, they can. And I, and Young Chicago Authors and Victory Gardens, too, are interested in creating a city where young people can traverse the city via culture, and make it a less segregated, more poly-cultural space that they are able to be in if they choose to be. It was an important piece for me, doing this show, that young people could come to see it. Through Louder Than a Bomb I work with hundreds, thousands, of young people in the city.  Part of what I want to do is have them see how a collection of poems can be broadened as well.  That was an important piece. A lot of the young poets I’m working with are coming to the show, and I think that they see now new possibilities for the course of their work. That’s important to me. 

L-Vis Live! runs through April 14 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave, 773-871-3000). Read our review of L-Vis Live! here.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)