Lehman Weichselbaum: Hot Mike/ My Afternoon at Viv's
Is an open mike as good as its host?
Do the steady doses of vinegar that spike the otherwise studious oratory at that Lower East Side dive draw a measure of their sting from the timely vaudevillian flourishes of the burly, otherwise donnish m.c.? Does the loyal band that follows that wandering venue across Lower Midtown nurture their tribal warmth under the beneficent sun that wreathes the brow of their beaming she-Moses? Do the troupers at that saloon sunken under the long shadow of St. Mark's Church find their moxie in the tender blandishments of the demurely tough sisterly blondes who run the shop?
But can you prove it?
DJ Viv operates the Stark Reality open mike series out of a suite of theatre workshop rooms on West 48th Street. Stark Reality is more than a handy platform for local performers inside of a tight three hours, it's a reverent shrine to the universal creative demon. Also known as Viviana Grell and Viviana Duncan (after one of her heroes Isadora Duncan), Stark's DJ Viv is a self-defined Jewish agnostic Latina (from Argentina way) whose forthright living faith is free expression, free politics and free love. As her announcements proclaim, "We can make noise, we can make a difference in this challenging world!!"
Perhaps not by chance the series attracts a gamut of performers to match the host's galactic embrace of the human imagination in its every guise: singers, instrumentalists, rappers, prose fictionists and memoirists, standup comedians, contemplatives and ranters, the occasional dancer and a decent smatter of poets (this reviewer included). DJ Viv's's big and very personal open door is as multiracial as it is multimedium, pulling the most ethnically diverse stream of performing artists outside of the Nuyorican Poets Café many blocks downtown, in a both necessary and rare reflection of this city's real color demographics. Dependably outside the box, DJ Viv is running the only known indoor open mike in the city (as of this writing) in the thick of the pandemic, She invokes the mask/six-foot-distance requirement, and participants oblige. On the recent show on Halloween day, Viv met a room moderately less filled than usual, with some appropriately costumed. As always, she introduced each act with flag-waving gusto, including first-time performers she was meeting for the first time. She led with her customary opening monologue, pronouncing, "On November third, let's get rid of fucking Trump!" She traced the birth of the Stark Reality series to "2006 or 2007, I forget. I've been kicked out of ten venues," and vowed, "No censorship. You can be as naked as you like. We go from mild to wild. This is a soundproof room. You can orgasm as loud as you want."
Somewhere in its history Stark Reality transformed from another convenient roadstop for random vagabond artistes to the polished magnet for real talent it is today. But one treasure of a star forum like Viv's is not just the disproportionately higher quality of its performers, but the yards they travel off the beaten track. Keeping it squarely on the edge, Downtown gutter lyricist "Big Mike" Logan," a man who doesn't negotiate reality" (per Viv's intro) delivered, with fleet, propulsive cadence off his cellphone, his frisky vignette of a tranny queen encounter in Union Square that would skin the earlobes of John Rechy.
Rosanne Friedman, to commemorate Halloween, read from the teachings of Charles Manson. Comic Rhett Server, a scatological snowblower in a deceptively cherubic package, pointed out that every masturbating straight male is committing a gay act. "Thank God I'm a faggot," he declared. "I could have been stuck as a miserable heterosexual back in the Midwest." "Philosopher comic" Joey Slade eulogized bygone days of unmasked white supremacy: "Let's do lynch. What are you doing Thursday?" He finished with an original song, "I Wanna Be a Dead Comic."
Amazing G traced her gender migrations from female to male back to female, discovering her singing and rapper voice first as a baritone, now as a mezzo-soprano. She trumpeted her debut single, rhyming, "No shame in my game. It's my spirit I control, take back what the darkness stole." Others kept Stark Reality's variety show fresh and variable.
Mitch Corber, who at open mikes alternates between his poetry and his original songs, announced: "I'm straight. I'm short. I've been writing since I was fifteen. I didn't get good till I was eighteen." On a lightly brushed guitar he offered his compositions "I Don't Know My Name" and "Your Kisses Are Whispers."
Ken Thompson started out with a generous, a capella version of "What Is This Thing Called Love," glided to the "primal hunting" of his poetry, then eased to a low-riding, jazz inflected bout on his guitar, to finish with a bitter farewell to the president-in-exit, "a white man in a suit with a silly red tie. You can't stop this shit."
A committed couple serenaded each other from their respective spots on the program. Jackie B delivered a short birthday verse to Lenere Rollins, "Imagine my surprise...,"followed by an a capella, one verse version of "Wind Beneath My Wings" in a smooth alto. Rollins herself, in a burgundy stitched Western shirt, joined an announcement of her birthday ("a Halloween baby, 61 years in love") and a quick scan of her life journey "from straight to bi to gay" with post-surgery problems in recent years and children and grandchildren in her wake. She delivered a homage to her mother, "who loved me no matter what and taught me to love everybody." She then sang "Genie in the Sky" to Jackie B in an undulating contralto and concluded with the peroration: "I'm more than a gay black woman. I'm an artist, a lover, a mother. Fight! Get up! Don't let nothing keep you down."
Stark Reality regular and retired New York Transit bus driver Ken Taylor offered his songs "First Love and Carousel" in a becoming high tenor and guitar self-accompaniment. "The devil behind you," he advised, "is the only god you know." Viv calls him to the mike later for an encore ("Life bites...bite back."). From impressionist rhymer Kay Rod: "Don't bring the knife to this fight. I got the Beretta." And: "My soul flies a new sky, and it's a different kind of blue." Ernest Woodley got lockdown-themed topical with a litany of images of a shut playground, "No Games Today." First timer Ray runs through a string of couplets each beginning with "Thank you..."
Somewhere in the middle of all this Viv rose from behind her table with the signup sheet and the complimentary bottles of Poland Spring, pressed the button on a small boom box, walked to the middle of the impromptu stage and began to dance, to the compulsive beat of Eminem. A bale of roiling energy in human shape, she doesn't so much impose her Dionysian militancy on the audience as suction them into it. Anyone can join her on the dance floor. Big Mike, a Stark Reality near-fixture despite his limited mobility, left early today, but when he hangs around, he leaves his crutches and abiding devilry at his chair like a miraculous if temporarily cured revivalist, and partners with Viv, whipping his long white hair in the air like a rock n' roll archangel.
Viv made sure to reiterate her screed of celebration and defiance in her own original verse. In a holiday-appropriate paean to "witches," she proclaimed, "It's a great day for a poem," and recited, "I heal the pain of the incurable. For this they take my life," and of the "hermit," "For each spin I go further within." On friends' advice to "retire" as she accrues years in legal workplaces s well as her literary excursions, "Poets do not retire." Like her dancing, Viv's poetry, as written and performed, is both extravagant in heart and attentively shaped.
This is Viv's show. And she gives the best of her soul to make sure you walk out a star.