By Cynthia Darling
Kane Smego’s show “Temples of Lung and Air” dazzles. He cracks his heart open to give an honest look at how he grew up, and how poetry and rap got him through. This is one man’s coming to know himself, caught, as he explains, between two turntables of American beliefs. The metaphor holds throughout.
Early in the show, Mr. Smego leads us through a musical autobiography, noting his earliest memories of music. His brother gave him a mix tape in kindergarten that contained the songs “Low Rider,” “Rubber Ducky,” and “Mama Said Knock You Out.” No shortage of variety there. When he turned seven, he heard Chris Kelly and Chris Smith of Kris Kross on a cassette tape. He wore a jacket and jeans backward to imitate them for half a day. In Mr. Smego’s musical coming of age, he says, that cassette tape from his brother was his first kiss, and the Kris Kross cassette tape was his first love.
The figures of Mr. Smego’s youth‑his grandmother and grandfather, his mother, his mother’s boyfriend, and his father‑play across the stage early in the show. Their conflicting values accompany Mr. Smego as he encounters situations in school that make him question his identity. From his younger years through the present, his mother appears to be, as he calls her, a “conjurer”‑ able to make something out of nothing. Burly, his mother’s boyfriend, is a long‑term presence and positive influence in Mr. Smego’s life. After his parents divorced, Mr. Smego found himself negotiating the terrain of their separate lives. And so, as he says, “I started spitting rhymes till I forgot where all the pain went.”
The show moves fast and Mr. Smego constantly involves the audience, making it a space for audience expression and interaction. Mr. Smego invokes the cypher, breaking into rapid‑fire beat boxing and reaching out to the audience, saying, “Since you’re part of the cypher, you can snap, clap or make what I like to call the grandma‑cooking noise…mmmmm.”
One scene, about a childhood birthday party, is emblematic of Mr. Smego as a storyteller. There’s character: each child at the party defined, made important and hilariously idiosyncratic through Mr. Smego’s descriptions. He uses the scene to evoke the complex history of these boys from the neighborhood. There’s suspense: kids lining up to hit a piñata his mother bought for the party, every kid vying for a place in line to try their swing of the bat. Then there’s the payoff‑the climactic act of David, his friend who was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t usually celebrate holidays, hitting the piñata. And then the symbolism‑oh, the symbolism‑of the turning point: no candy falls. “Like somebody just killed Santa,” Mr. Smego narrates. His mother had thought the candy came prepacked inside. And just like that, “In that moment we were all David, and Halloween had been cancelled.”
When Burly, his mother’s boyfriend, who is black, comes to speak to Mr. Smego’s fourth‑grade class, he feels uncomfortable in a way he never had before. He notes, “I barely speak to Burly that day.” At that young age, he already feels the pressures of race dividing him from his own family and from himself. In sixth grade, the pressures heighten. He inputs the competing voices of kids at school in his head from, “Why you talk black? Stop acting black” to “You’re not black, wigger.” His head twitches as he mimics being caught between these comments, like a skipping record or a Tourette’s twitch. More comments sting: “Burly’s not like you, Kane.” At home, he feels equally bombarded. Different family members represent a full spectrum of attitudes on race, expressing everything from fear of difference to vehement beliefs in racial equality.
And then his eighth‑grade Language Arts teacher saves him by introducing him to poetry. Poetry is “ancient magic,” according to Burly. Soon after, in high school, his English teacher introduces him to spoken word. As Mr. Smego notes, “You can always write yourself dope.” It’s only a few short years until he launches his vibrant career as a youth educator, spoken word poet, and hip hop artist.
Mr. Smego’s rap allows his show to span time, space, memory and voice‑an American pilgrimage, of sorts. The audience follows him through his youth in North Carolina, and then up to North Dakota, for his short stint of trying to live with his dad. The end of the show recreates a scene of an unlikely middle‑of‑the‑night encounter in Alaska between Mr. Smego and his friend, and the owner of a gas station and his son. Pushing past racial difference, the four forge an unlikely connection. The entire story takes on a surreal quality, as Mr. Smego delves more and more into the spiritual quality of words as healing.
The multimedia aspect of the show runs throughout, as Mr. Smego uses funky lighting and voiceovers, as well as his own in‑the‑moment recordings. Quotations from philosophers like Frantz Fanon appear on the back wall of the stage. Sometimes these quotations needed more integration into the show. They spoke for themselves, but I wanted more context: What do these quotations mean to Mr. Smego personally?
This is a show about words that were born early in a man’s life‑words that are fun, joyous, wrenching, surprising, and playful. There’s pain in this show. And there’s healing. There’s relentless self‑awareness. All make Mr. Smego a priest of the spoken word, taking his story to the cities and distant corners of America ‑ and coming out singing.
“Temples of Lung and Air”
Written and Performed by Kane Smego
October 6 at 2 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.