By Jim Perkinson
So finally (!) after more than a decade of prodding and poking, organizing and hoping, a small cadre of followers/learners/colleagues/collaborators managed to secure a Knight Foundation grant to re-convene the memory send-ups and rhythmic shout-outs marking an ancestral advent of Detroit poet/playwright extraordinaire, Ron Allen. The Knight announcement breaking light on a late-Fall morn, came over the horizon with the sun on December 8, 2021. And since then, the RAP (Ron Allen Project) Crew has been gearing up to get the beat established and the syncopated elaborations sounded and circulating. The organizing ensemble of Ruby Woods (aka Anita Jones, as prime mover and shaker), Carla Harryman, John Jakary, Richard Reeves, and Jim Perkinson are now helping coordinate the next two years of programming.
Ron’s books, CDs, scripts, media clippings, magazines and videotapes of past plays, rehearsals, interviews, readings and talk backs are being made available on a newly created website, complemented by a Facebook page and group. Fall of 2023 will culminate in an installation at the Hannan Center on Woodward near Wayne State, featuring an exhibit of artifacts, videos, and experiential engagements with Ron’s material as well as a panel exploration of his significance—all in a format designed to be portable and thus viable beyond the funding period. But first on the agenda (after securing the necessary legal and fiduciary scaffolding) has been a revamp and launch of the very word-crucible—Horizons in Poetry (HIP)—that Allen, Wardell Montgomery and John Mason first hammered into existence out of Cass Corridor hardness and sass in 1982.
Allen had grown up in Detroit, survived the Vietnam debacle by way of panache and savvy (with a bit of mystical clairvoyance mixed in on the side), and came back to a country in upheaval. The beginnings of a white supremacy reaction to the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement struggles to undo the invisible shackle and a growing neoliberal resolve to privatize the planet and bury every liberation aspiration in debt were gathering momentum. Allen went deep into the down-under side of his own personal “night,” the go-low zone of a Motown Black Bottom return from a chicory root, peeping and weeping blue exclamation points between sidewalk cracks, and the universe’s own multiplex personality-vibe of re-mixed ferocity and gentleness that the culture more typically calls “schizophrenia.” Allen was a no-holds-barred astronaut of the not-yet, cruising off the edge of the known with word and vibe, to compel the Other-Side to yield at least jokes and glimpses, if not revelation itself, on this side of the illusion we call Reality. He was as impatient with cliché and quotation as he was tender with whatever slender tendril of novelty a wanna-be poet might offer in his Unitarian Universalist Church hosted verb-clinic that he and his HIP posse anchored once-a-month, as a Sunday afternoon counterpoint to the morning’s typical whooping and shouting.
The venture gave his voyage across the time-warp a mantra and a circle. And allowed him to get a good one-half of his body back on this side of the boundary of the parallel multiverse he had fallen into, without letting go the juice and reverb of that other side. The rest is history—a “medicine” history to be precise, Allen crafting with tongue and sound what a visual artist like Tyree Guyton was doing with eye and paint on Heidelberg Street. And of course, it was inevitable that they would collaborate at some point—as they did in Allen’s play called The Heidelberg Project: Squatting in the Circle of the Elder Mind that had even Guyton’s head grinning in upside-down wonder at the invocation! That particular wrinkle in the warp punctuated a productive run of thirteen plays, whose titles alone—such as Last Church of the Twentieth Century, Aborigional Treatment Center , Twenty Plays in Twenty Minutes, Dreaming the Reality Room Yellow, WHAM!, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Relative Energy Sack Theory Museum, Swallow the Sun, My Eyes Are the Cage in My Head, The Hieroglyph of the Cockatoo, and Eye Mouth Graffiti Body Shop—already hint the off-beat litany of poetic majesty Allen’s work probes simply by being listed one under the other on the page!
All of which is to say Allen did not put grammar (like a period or a semi-colon) between his production and his life. He lived the throb and rode the wave, like a one-man realization of a possession troupe, full of ancestors. Now, a decade down the line, it is high time to re-visit the conjugation and be re-mixed ourselves! And it is worth highlighting: Allen was not just a street-stroked master of the mouth-jam; he was riffing on his own diabetes and phrenia in a manner that instructed others; he cooked a mean repast and gave it to others without cost; he counseled regarding sobriety and addiction with first person conviction; he mentored and moved with seamless (and bombastic!) ease from “the street life to university classrooms to community ministering [as] an example of the remarkable resilience and healing of social divisions that can occur through the arts,” as one sentence of the grant write-up insists. Growing up Christian, he ended up Buddhist and on-a-mission—pushing all he collaborated with to elude convention, embrace creative fusion, and listen across the boundary and under the wall. For instance, he presided at my marriage alongside an ensemble that included an activist Methodist pastor, a Sufi saxophonist, an NOI poetess probing the sky, a gospel-singing Filipino family contingent on my wife’s side, and a jazz-band quartet converting Marygrove College’s largest hall into a menagerie of bodies pontificating polyrhythmic pluralities, hoping to channel Coltrane through their toes. The whole show was like a group gestalt of Ron Allen made multiple.
Back up in the present, the Project itself has already begun offering an every-other-month reconstitution of HIP—currently confined by “Coronavirus-tutelage” to a Zoom appearance—featuring the voice of a major invitee as well as a few word-licks by the MCing co-hosts, an open mic for as many as eight on-the-spot word-smiths, a half-hour Q & A session with the featured voice, and a general recapitulation of the Project’s vision and unfolding. At core is our conviction that this life should be recast in an accessible “ancestral” mode—as example of using art to craft pain and adversity into vibrant cacophony and overcoming, and of using personal relation and advocacy to overcome enmity and division across differences of tradition, religion, and community writ large. Allen’s art and practice stand as a model. Here was (and is) a resilience capable of continuously innovating everyday existence into registers of musicality and surprise that becomes an ever-more needed antithesis to today’s commercializing homogenization inside the maw of global capital. May Ron himself—in friendly form—visit the effort!