'South Side Stories' sets poems to song

'South Side Stories' sets poems to song
Capathia Jenkins and Louis Rosen discuss racial transformations in Chicago.

Often students stuck in a boring literature class let their minds wander. As the professor rambles on about symbolism, they start to think about what they are going to have for dinner, whether that person they met at Clyde's will call and what tremendous drama will occur during tonight's episode of "Grey's Anatomy."

But there are certain questions that always seem to come to mind.

Say the professor is droning on about iambic pentameter. No one can help but notice the undeniable rhythm created by each line and how perfectly the words flow together. The next logical thought is often to ask oneself: "Wouldn't this make a great song?"

In Louis Rosen's "South Side Stories," the composer does just that. He takes the words of renowned American poets and spins them into lyrics accompanied with smooth acoustic music. Some of these songs were recently performed at the Historic Sixth and I Synagogue by Broadway artist Capathia Jenkins.

"South Side Stories" is a song cycle adapted from Rosen's play "The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood." It depicts the south side of Chicago as it changed from an upper-class Jewish neighborhood to a middle-class African American one.

Rosen calls it a story of "youth, innocence, coming of age and experience." These songs speak of drug abuse, family ties, parental relationships, falling in love and sexual experiences. College-aged audiences can relate to this show because it deals with many of the issues they face everyday.

The first act was composed of songs taken from the poetry of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. Each song cycle highlighted the most widely known works of each poet and certainly shed new light on the meaning and beauty of each. The soft, strong voice of Jenkins combined with Rosen's rhythmic music truly transformed the poetry into something greater than the sum of its parts.

The audience was not thinking about underlining key words or highlighting phrases in a Lit textbook. Instead, listeners actually realized the deeper messages that were hidden in the poems and better appreciated how each was beautifully, carefully crafted. The songs created a jazzy vibe and were in turn inspiring, empowering and even a little romantic.

The most outstanding number of the evening was "Phenomenal Woman," which is a song adapted from the eponymous Maya Angelou poem. Jenkins sang powerful lyrics that truly touched the audience. It was obvious that as Jenkins sang, "I am a woman, phenomenally. Phenomenal Woman, that's me," she sincerely believed it and made the audience believe it too.

The second act of "South Side Stories" also inspired some students to think, "Wow, my life story could be a bestseller."

The song that connected best with students was "Mae's Chevrolet," which spoke about a car that "blew heat in the summer and air in the winter." It illustrated the joys of cruising in a car with friends, singing without inhibition and carelessly forgetting the pains of life - pleasures most students have enjoyed.

"South Side Stories" gave audiences a new admiration for poetry and music. The songs and lyrics were moving, emotional and truly touched the audience.

Everyone should look for future performances of Jenkins' and Rosen's work. They are excellent performers who can connect with listeners of all ages, and they're guaranteed to deliver a great show.

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