A spooky night at the Speakeasy

Some came in plain clothes. Some came in costume. They occupied the dimly lit front room of the Kelly Writers House on Halloween to read and sing in the second annual Halloween Speakeasy Extravaganza. A mellow but alert crowd of about 40 people that mixed young and old, town and gown, attended the event. Although the audience sat relatively silently before the show began, it stirred in response to humorous remarks made by the performers.

The “Speakeasy” open-mike performance night tradition was started by students in 1997 and is still going strong. Unlike normal Speakeasies, which operate with a first-come, first-served sign-up sheet the night of the event, the Halloween Extravaganza featured a program. The event was also unusual in that many people performed pieces that were not their own, in the interest of bringing in something spooky. Nevertheless, the performers that stood out were the ones that featured original pieces.

The good

Carlos Gomez (C ‘04) delivered the best performance of the night, and it had nothing to do with Halloween. He recited/spat/yelled two original pieces with a degree of confidence and competence unmatched by any other reader that night. The first piece, “T-E-A-R,” juxtaposed descriptions of extreme brutality and descriptions of extreme beauty to show the dual nature of life. The second piece, “fade…” angrily denounced the indifference of rich nations toward the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Gomez said that he liked performing at the Speakeasy because it is “a great forum for a lot of diverse forms of artistic expression.” He also commented on the benefits of performing. “I’ve had a rough last couple of weeks, and this is my time to therapeutically release all the tension and frustration.”

Patrick Green, a tall, relatively young man with lipstick marks scattered on his face, read two poems: “Looking out over the city” and “It is true that Autumn.” Both were rather short, but quite good.

The weird

Well, it was Halloween, and some people took this theme very seriously. Adam Tyson read an original short story called “The Lung and Heels,” which began as a first-person description of the speaker’s one-lunged boss drilling into some kind of concrete (Tyson enthusiastically made a drilling sound effect, among others, into the microphone). Halfway through, the story abruptly switched into a second-person perspective, describing how you become a particle, enter the boss’s lung, and find a demon inside. Tyson also managed to squeeze in a brief impersonation of a Southern preacher at the end. He finished the piece by giving the audience an ominous warning about the power of demons.

A tall guy in a large white wig, who went by “The Old Man,” read a short piece that had something to do with a “psycho killer.” Before starting the piece, he brought a large empty bottle up to the podium and said, “I always let the spirit enter me. On Halloween and every night.” The crowd liked that a lot.

The end

The last performer was George Bradley, who identified himself as an ex-San Francisco beatnik and who said he had been coming to the Writers House for the past 15 to 20 years, which is really weird since Writers House was founded only six years ago. He began by having a conversation with himself. The point soon became clear: he unzipped his jacket and revealed that he had a plastic baby stuck on his chest. He read two short poems (or was it the baby who read them?) whose meaning I couldn’t decipher. Unfortunately for Bradley, by the time he was finished, it was about 10:30 and most of the audience had already left (those who had stayed filed out rather quickly).

To meet a colorful cast of characters, come to (and perhaps even perform at) one of the Writers House’s many “Speakeasy” events, which are held every other Wednesday. More info at dept.english.upenn.edu/~wh or 215-573-WRIT.

Originally published on November 14, 2002