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Between Songs: A Review of "Temples of Lung and Air"

I saw a show a few weeks ago called Temples of Lung and Air, written and performed by Kane Smego, a rapper and spoken word artist from Durham. Significantly, Smego is white. As a child, he divided his time between his mother and her Black boyfriend in Durham, and his conservative dad and grandparents in West Virginia. In other words, as Smego puts it, “I kind of grew up between songs.”

The story that follows, told through spoken word, rap, mixed media and casual conversation, narrates the gaping space between those songs. When Smego’s mom moves them from Durham to Chapel Hill, the space only widens; as Smego says [paraphrased], “It was the first time a part of me faced eviction. You think 20 minutes don’t make a difference...but we’re south of the Mason-Dixon.” At his new school, the white kids wondered why he talked the way he did, why he listened to rap. Eventually, he tried to merge his skin color with his idea of who he was. He stopped “acting black.”

National politics informed these identity struggles too. In an incredibly moving scene, Smego depicts the bewildering disparity between Fox News, which he watches with his dad’s family, and NPR, which he listens to with his mom. He frantically recites clips from each news source, jerking his head from side to side, cutting himself off, the contradiction becoming louder and louder, the audience wincing at the confusion and pain of a child in the middle. Here, still, he is “between songs.” Or between turntables, as he puts it, “caught between left and right--or far left and far right.”

Class is an evident element here, and eventually Smego tackles notions of both race and class from a historical perspective. He breaks down the history of whiteness with the brass confidence of a game show host, declaring jubilantly, “The flushing toilet is older than we are!” He spends significant time thinking about the border as a mechanism for policing racial and ethnic identity, with piercing metaphors: “The border is a racist bouncer.” “The border impersonates time, claims to have always been.” “The border is a colony of eyes.” “The border always approaches with hand on pistol.” Finally, he traces the etymology of words like “ain’t,” challenging modern-day grammar police to rethink their justifications for banning words that aren’t “proper.” In these ways, he steps back from the narrative of his life and casts it into the context of something much bigger, putting race and class squarely on the examination table and seeing what holds up under bright light.

As an adult, life speeds up a bit. Smego becomes a spoken word coach, motivating students to speak their truths about their lives and in this way become free. His dad commits suicide. On a trip through rural Alaska with a Black poet and friend, Smego finds himself in a cabin adorned with a Confederate flag, where its owner swears he loves Black people and proceeds to share a poem about drug addiction to the first pair of professional poets he’s ever met. There is no one meaning to be taken from this, and Smego does not try to force-feed us one. He wants this encounter to mean something, something good. Whether or not it does, we are moved by the wanting. By the hoping.

Everywhere in this show is Hip-Hop. At one point, Smego projects a quote from Danny Hoch: “Hip-Hop is the truth, as told by kidnapped Africans, with Japanese technology, on stolen land, sent out to poor and rich youth all over the world, disguised as American products.” Throughout the show, we feel the pressing and universal appeal of Hip-Hop, while being reminded by Smego that it is not his to own, but merely “the great house I’m a guest in.” As we leave, there is a collective sense of gratitude and awe at having been guests in this house today.

Temples of Lung and Air - written and performed by Kane Smego, directed by Joseph Megel

Performed with PlayMakers Repertory Company at Joan Gillings Center for Dramatic Art on UNC Chapel Hill campus from Aug 22-26

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