If you attend Tuesday Verses in Jackson Ward, don't expect to merely sit and watch the poets, emcees and singers who take to the stage inside Tropical Soul. Even in the packed house, Lorna Pinckney, hostess of the poetry slam and music showcase, will admonish you for taking up space. There are, after all, people waiting outside to get in, people who'd be glad to shout out encouragement to the brave folks who've climbed onstage.
One recent Tuesday, Pinckney lets a cluster of folks sitting near the stage have it. “OK,” she says to the people sitting cross-legged, who, God bless 'em, have had to maneuver carefully to even find an inch of floor, “You've got to participate if you sit down front. Clap, say something. You can't be messing up the energy.”
Indeed, the energy to which she refers is almost tangible: candles flickering on tables, crimson walls, paintings featuring brown faces. Add in the rich, savory smells supplied by spices on soul food, and there's a relaxed and familial vibe here even the jaded can't deny.
Family is a central theme of Tuesday Verses, and regulars refer to themselves as such. The family — 25 or so regulars who perform in a spontaneous rotation — is so strong that, at eight years, Tuesday Verses has become the biggest and longest-running open mic in Richmond. The show celebrates its eighth birthday Oct. 15 with Well Versed at Canal Club.
“I don't want Verses to be regular kind of club thing where you come in and don't talk to people,” Pinckney says. “It's very important to what makes it special that we have some warmth and people from all backgrounds feel invited.”
Tuesday Verses started when Pinckney, a Brooklyn-bred Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and marketing executive, sat around one day with friends, bemoaning Richmond's lack of inspiration. So she created something.
Soul Kitchen, as it was called, brought together poets and emcees monthly at the John Marshall Hotel. It eventually closed but when it was open, Pinckney found that people younger than 18 — unable to come in — were asking to be accommodated. So in 2002 Soul Kitchen moved to Tropical Soul and was rechristened as Tuesday Verses.
Some 80 to 100 people turn out every week to hear poets reveal their deepest thoughts or singers belt out covers and originals. In time, underground soul stars such as N'Dambi — Erykah Badu's friend and backup singer — have turned out. People have come from as far away as California. Based on demand, Pinckney expanded the event to Washington, where the famed jazz club Bohemian Caverns hosts Wednesday Verses. Singer and songwriter Avery Sunshine, who's worked with Tyler Perry and Jennifer Holiday, and performed daily during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, will perform at Tuesday Verses here on Oct. 26.
With Tuesday Verses an institution, its move to Second Street will make it something like the forerunner of a renaissance.
“That actual space,” Pinckney says, referring to Second Street, “was the walkway for African-Americans — where singers and writers would hang out. Prior to integration, Second Street became their street because they were not allowed to go other places.”
Of course, the people who flock to Second Street for Tuesday Verses now go by choice, but the way they talk about it, it's a siren call they can't quite ignore.
Take LaShawnda Davis, a 27-year-old who teaches at a private preschool by day. This night though, she's belting out a rendition of Jazmine Sullivan's “Bust Your Windows,” followed by Gnarls Barkley's “Crazy,” backed by the very good house band Chkn Grease. She's one of a few Verses crew people who “work off” her $7 admission fee by watching the door or performing other tasks. “It's my outlet,” Davis says, “the way I release stress.” Pinckney says people have met partners there; some say it's saved their lives.
Sirah, a rapper waiting outside for someone to come out so he can go in, feels part of something. “It's a good, clean atmosphere,” he says, stopping to give dap and a hug to another guy, and buy his CD. “It's a very open-minded, diverse place, whereas a lot of the other clubs here it's just a bunch of Southern rap. This is a family.”
Back inside, a guy finishes a poem that references Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This is followed by Nickey McMullen, in a floor-length skirt, head wrap and many bangles, who brings down the house with a powerful voice; she meanders from a superb cover of Andre 3000's “Prototype” to a ridiculous stream-of-consciousness diatribe about being sued by her credit union and the deliciousness of Arby's sandwiches.
Then, a break.
“If you're on this side,” Pinckney says onstage, “you have to get up and meet someone on the other side. And don't be trying to get on the phone or go outside. In fact, shut the door. If you leave now, you will not be allowed back in. Get up, talk with somebody. And not anybody you came with.” S
Tuesday Verses occurs every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. at Tropical Soul. 314 N. Second St. Admission is $7. Tuesday Verses' eighth anniversary party, Well Versed, is scheduled for Oct. 15 at the Canal Club, 1545 E. Cary St., at 8 p.m. Tickets $12 in advance, $20 at the door. Tickets can be purchased at Tropical Soul, Plan 9 in Carytown or at thecanalclub.com.