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Poet Reg E. Gaines On Being 'The Last Celebrity'

Poet Reg E. Gaines on being 'The Last Celebrity'
GUESTReg E. Gaines, poet, author and playwright.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Are you ready for your 15 minutes of fame? Getting a toe on the celebrity red carpet seems to be a career goal in 21st century Americas. It sometimes seems nobody cares what you're famous for just as long as you are famous. Poet Reg E. Gaines took a ride on that celebrity train. Grammy nominee, and Bessie award winner for best lyrics for Broadway hit, bring in da noise, bring in da funk. Welcome to the show. GAINES: Did you write that? CAVANAUGH: I did! GAINES: Go ahead, see? I'm in the right place. CAVANAUGH: All right! I'm glad you liked it. GAINES: Could I do something? CAVANAUGH: Yeah. GAINES: I would like to thank Eileen Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and Ana, Beto, and Armando, the roots family factory for supporting me with the last celebrity. Thank y'all. CAVANAUGH: All right! Glad you got a chance to say that. Now, you've been famous for more than 15 minutes. GAINES: Famous! CAVANAUGH: What's it like on the red carpet sunset. GAINES: You hide. CAVANAUGH: Why? GAINES: Because I'm one of ten kids with a mother who passed away when I was 10, second from the top. When you're around, you have that message brothers and sisters, siblings, you could never be famous. You have a mindset like you are always going to be -- that many siblings, it's like do the right thing, Reg E., do the right thing, speak the right way, you're not better than -- you know, you just can't get an ego when you're washing your little 18 month old brother and sister's diapers or cooking -- you can't trip like that. CAVANAUGH: You have got to remain in the place and not think too highly of yourself, right? GAINES: Well, you have too many other things to do. CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah. GAINES: That's really what it is. So I don't have time to be selfish in that way. CAVANAUGH: Well, in the late 90s, you had a hit Broadway show, and you get awards, people know who you are. GAINES: Sure do, yeah. CAVANAUGH: Do you feel famous then? GAINES: Not at all. Because the way I was raised made me realize it was a blessing more than anything else. CAVANAUGH: But people treated you like you were famous. GAINES: People couldn't get near me because I was scared of it. Outside a theatre, here comes the pappy ratsy, I'd be gone. CAVANAUGH: People must have thought you were crazy. Everybody in America wants to be famous. GAINES: Well, are the social phenom hadn't really hit yet. We can go back to Andy Warhol's many minute thing, but it hadn't really hit, and I was not comfortable. The first thing I did when I got some loot was move back to jersey city. I was living in the village. Around people I grew up with, played football with, did criminal things with, but I was not comfortable. And the first time we walked out of the theatre, a crowd of people swarmed, and I'm, like, yo, later. And I was gone. And the next day, where'd you go? I said that's not my groove. I can't roll like this. CAVANAUGH: Now, this Saturday, you're going to be presenting your newest work, the last celebrity, it's bat Voz Alta. GAINES: 4 o'clock to 6:00, we're going to open the doors at 4:00. It's a stage reading workshop. CAVANAUGH: Right. And it's about this love-hate, sound like more hate relationship. [ LAUGHTER ] GAINES: Oh, I didn't hate it. I was just uneasy about it. CAVANAUGH: You said you would share the prolog for us. GAINES: Oh, yeah! I'll set it up for you. House lights go down, the music that's playing is rebirth of slick, I'm cool like that, cool like that because that was the big hit when all of this started happening to me. And none of us liked it. They did a spot that we used to shoot the video, the Bohemian black and white video, so we were like they were biting on us. So the music starts, there's a ten by ten screen on the stage, I walk in, I go down stage center, and all you can see is my figure in silhouette, you can't see my face, and I say "it's opening night of the Pulitzer prize-winning drama atop dog, under dog. Sheik and I hop out of the car, he's swarmed by photographers, I step aside witnessing the circus when a reporter sticks her mic in my face. I wax poetically about the lack of black folk on the great white way, how our stories tend to be told by people who do not look like us. She seems genuinely interested until the word menstrual leaps from my lips. She moves toward chic who speaks with Russell simmons. As we enter the lobby, the reporter screams what's your name! I say the last celebrity, laughing all the way to our seventh row aisle seats. The following day, on the New York post, infamous page 6, is a photograph of chic, and an unidentifiable figure which reads save Ian glover and the last celebrity attends Suzanne glory park's top dog, under dog. I sometimes wonder if the reporter ever knew my name." [ LAUGHTER ] GAINES: True story! CAVANAUGH: That's great! GAINES: But you know what's great about this? My brother and the people I were hanging out with, jersey city, they were with me every step of the way. I could trust them, they were documenting what was happening with video. So I got video! I have so much video. CAVANAUGH: Is that going to be part of this piece? GAINES: Oh, it's -- here. What happens after I say the reporter ever knew my name, we bump to the video screen, I vanish on the stage, John Stewart appears on the screen, and he says my next guest is an example of what you get when you mix a little backbeat with some original poetry. What you get is people to listen. Here performing everybody from his upcoming second CD spoken word artist, Reg E. Gaines. Then we bump back, I reappear on the stage, and I talk about how that all happened. How I walked out of my apartment on bleaker street in the village, bumped into some famous hip hop artists that I knew John Stewart calls me from across the street. CAVANAUGH: This is like celebrity heaven for a lot of people, and yet you're keeping it at arm's length. GAINES: Because it's scary. CAVANAUGH: How? GAINES: Oh, well, here. When I was growing up, I did some bad things. Not felonies, but I did some bad things. I might have been unfair with some people, just involving things you do on the street. Do you think I want somebody they was unfair to in say, 1972, to see me on MTV in 1995 going, wait a minute, I know him. He robbed me! He broke into my car! And I'm not telling you that I'm a criminal or anything, but why in the world would I put myself out there like that? CAVANAUGH: And yet you did! GAINES: But not intentionally. My accidental brush with fame. CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha. Okay. GAINES: See? Because I was pulling back, no publicist, nothing. The entire story is like -- and it's the best thing I've ever written because of the video. And the video has allowed me to right lean in a very minimalistic way, because it's like cliff notes for the video. I want people in the beginning to go, are who is this person? In the age we live nowa day, technological advances in communication, wait a minute, I don't know him. I got access to all this information, I don't know you. Who are you? So in the beginning of the piece, I want people to go, who is this? Is he joking or what? The prologue. Somebody hears that, did he make that up? What is this? But that really happened. And even when the picture came out in the New York post on page 6, my back was turned to it. Just because of the nature of just even the hip hob world that we live in, chuck D., Flavor Flav, all these black artists got these names that their mother wouldn't give them. So it seemed nothing for this reporter to say the last celebrity, she didn't know I was playing her. So she's going to put down probably with confidence. She probably thought that's a dope name! [ LAUGHTER ] GAINES: Q-tip, Dr. Dre. CAVANAUGH: The last celebrity! GAINES: And I wonder if she ever knew my name. CAVANAUGH: I was to ask you about this staged reading on Saturday. What makes it different from a regular poetry reading? Performance? GAINES: Well, you hear me now. You and I are not scripted. CAVANAUGH: No. GAINES: So the whole idea is, I'm trying to be interactive with the audience. All right? Period. They claim that our world is interactive now, but that's a misnomer. It's really not. So it's really different is that I'm able to allow people to critically analyze what I'm doing without feeling like it's a bad thing. Like in San Diego, you can't critically analyze anything here. Where I come from, it's a different ball game. People look for that. So what makings it different, and we probably have an open mic, and I'll be lucky if I get through two or three sections of the piece. I could stop midway also, I know it, it's in my DNA. And because of the sparse and minimalist, writing, I know I can improvise. I request tell these stories, I can go back and forth. I have an iPod file for a brain, so I so I can talk to somebody for three minutes then go back where I was at. CAVANAUGH: A lot of workshop when is they ask for audience input. The idea is they might change their piece according to the kind of feedback that they get. Is that what you're thinking of doing? GAINES: No, I'm skilled. And I'm a hardcore veteran at this. So I know what works. Like for instance, I start -- the opening line of the prologue, it's opening night. That's universal. So I didn't just put that down because it really happened and is truthful, but that's universal. There's not a single person that can hear that and not have some visual, some image in their head. So right, it's opening night. Boom. You say it's opening night. I bet you every last one of them got a different image. Then I say here, the next pass is of the -- alliteration, Pulitzer prize-winning drama. So now musically pulling them in. Then look at the title, who even knows what top dog under dog is, but that's a dope title! They don't know all these people who were a creative team in the piece, but top dog, under dog. And depending on who's in the audience, I may put positive connotations to it musically, and when I say under dog, I could put negative connotations. So we sound like it's opening night of the top dog, then under dog. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: It all depends. Right. You're obviously really excite body this visual element that's going to be part of your piece. Do you think spoken word changes in -- perhaps it's not as powerful if it needs to rely on visuals? GAINES: Oh, no. This is the best writing I've ever done. I'm a Tony nominated playwright lyricist! CAVANAUGH: I heard that! [ LAUGHTER ] GAINES: No, what happens with -- if you know poetry, the very best poetry is sparse. It's minimalist. You talk -- the high brows, the stale Yale, they'll tell you, Stevie wonder will tell you, Shakespeare will tell you, it's sparse. To be or not to be. Monosyllables. That's not by chance. Pull up to your into the on low shine, brighter than all the cash that -- so it becomes -- if you can strip it down and make it so that people have the freedom to imagine, it is the cause. It is the cause, my soul. Let me not, name it to you, you chase star, it is the cause. That's Shakespeare. That's 25 monosyllable words in a row. So you study this, then you hear my piece. After John Stewart introduces me, I say -- I come back on stage, and I say sun-drenched Monday afternoon in June. That's hot. CAVANAUGH: Got to stop you. I hate to do that! We are out of time. GAINES: Later! CAVANAUGH: So people questions to ask you, but Reg E. Gaines will present an excerpt from his newest work, the last celebrity at Voz Alta project in Barrio Logan. GAINES: 1754 National Avenue. Open the doors at 4:00 it's free, but you can make donations to help Carlos pay for the light bills. CAVANAUGH: This Saturday. Thank you Reg E. GAINES: Later.

Americans are more obsessed with celebrity than ever before, and getting a toe on the celebrity red carpet seems to be a worthy career goal for many. Often it seems nobody cares what you're famous for, just as long as you are famous.

Spoken word poet Reg E. Gaines took a ride on that celebrity train during the 1990s. Working as a tennis instructor, Gaines traveled with a high school team to Israel in 1989. It was there that he began to write, keeping a journal of his travels. Upon returning to the U.S., he shared his journal with a friend, who suggested that he read it at the famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City. There, he quickly made a name for himself and was crowned a "Grand Slam Champion" in 1991, a high honor within the slam poetry community. National tours (including MTV's Spoken Word Unplugged tour) and several appearances on national TV shows soon followed.

Born in Jersey City, N.J., Gaines is also an author playwright, director, two-time Tony Award nominee, Grammy nominee and Bessie Award winner for Best Book/Lyrics for the Broadway hit "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk."


Now living in San Diego, Gaines will share an excerpt from his latest performance piece, "The Last Celebrity," this Saturday at 5 pm at Voz Alta Project in Barrio Logan.

Inspired by his "accidental brush with fame," "The Last Celebrity" incorporates poetry, music and video to tell gaines's own story. (Watch a trailer for this work below.) gaines describes this Saturday's event as a staged reading performance, and he will be looking to the audience for feedback. The entire work will makes its debut in Jersey City in February 2013.

KPBS Midday Edition speaks with Gaines about his newest work, his brush with the spotlight and our culture's unyielding obsession with celebrity.

reg e gaines: The Last Celebrity