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Prison Activist and Spoken Word Poet Visits Pacific Union College

To the naked eye PUC looks exactly the way it looked last month and the month before that. Sure maybe a few more flowers have bloomed, but everything is really the same. Except it isn’t. Little ripples of change are always in motion. We are a community of students, of artists, of adults and near-adults in flux. The way all humans are. Last month a few more ripples of change were set into motion when PUC had the privilege of welcoming Bryonn Bain, a spoken-word poet and prison activist to campus. Bryonn’s credits include: Nuyorican Grand Slam Poetry Champion 2002; founder of the Blackout Arts Collective, a grassroots organization that brings workshops and performances to public schools and prisons; current host of BET-J’s T current affairs talk show “My Two Cents.” He has traveled the world. Worked with artists ranging from Jay-Z to Dead Prez. Acted and been featured in several films And is the “Poet-in-Residence” at the New School University in New York. So what was he doing at PUC? Premiering his one-man show to the world at Alice Holst Theater.

On March 5 students and faculty packed Alice Holst theater for Bryonn’s one-man show We Are and So I Am, a 76-minute performance that blends hip-hop and spoken word to tell the story of his experience with an unjust prison system, racism and how to move forward despite the existence of both of these things. As well as how the different influences in his life have come together to make him who he is. Bryonn experienced the unjust hand of the law when he was taken in for a crime he didn’t commit. His only crime: being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. The experience he had proving his innocence and dealing with the prison system greatly impacted him and opened his eyes to the prison crisis currently happening in America.

Bryonn’s identity is a culmination of many different things and many different faiths. He comes from a family that has both Muslims and Christians, many of who are Seventh-day Adventist. He grew up working class and has an Ivy League education. As a Harvard law graduate and artist Bryonn has resources that others who have experienced similar injustices don’t have access to. “I have experiences both of being very privileged and also of overcoming. My life and consequently my story bring together these two worlds that usually don’t mix. My story brings together all these different worlds, if nothing else it has given me a platform to speak about the prison crisis in the country. America is imprisoning more people than any other country in the world. […] In America we like to cast black people as crying victim, but since I have a formal education that is exceptional, I am able to get the microphone and have a wider audience listen to me. And I want to use that microphone to call attention to the contradictions that are alive in the country.”

The fact that the talkback to the play lasted longer than the play itself shows how loudly Bryonn is speaking to people from all walks of life. He inspired not only a standing ovation, but also a thoughtful discussion that last about an hour and a half. Students and faculty kept bringing up new questions, comment. They wanted to talk and talk and talk and Bryonn was more than willing to talk with them. “ I was very impressed with the caliber of students, how sharp they are, the questions they asked, how long they stayed for talkback. I mean the talkback lasted longer than the show! […] I was also impressed with how supportive the faculty was for someone whose language can sometimes embrace profanity to talk about profane conditions in the world as part of my artistic license […] I very much look forward to having an opportunity to return and continuing the conversations we had while I was here.”

Bryonn has started little ripples of conversation in ever direction here on campus. Conversations about race, sexism, equality, art, which is exactly what he and Mei-Ann Teo, the director of We Are and So I Am and PUC’s artist-in-residence, wanted.

Students and faculty have been deeply affected and inspired by Bryonn’s one man show, as well as the Social Work Colloquium he spoke at and the poetry class he workshopped. Margarette Zelaski, a student and spoken word poet herself said, “He has strong views on the present state of colored people and where they should be going in the future. Others might be turned off if he’s talking, but he might reach them on a different level through his poetry. Any time he performed one of his poems it was good. It was inspiring because he was like a flint and his words sparked a fire within some of us.”

Mei-Ann has been collaborating with Bryonn personally on this project. She invited him to PUC because she sensed that there was a need that he could fill. As PUC’s resident artist, Mei-Ann Teo has brought lots of moving drama to PUC and continues to work hard to bring significant productions to this campus. Bringing Bryonn and exposing PUC to his perspective was part of her endeavors to help PUC grow. “ I kept seeing students who I wanted to inspire but that would take a certain kind of drama that was different. […] I was blown away by Bryonn’s perspective. He says things that are controversial but speaks from a specific perspective, and every time something blows my mind I want to bring it to the students.”

The conversation doesn’t stop here. Students are still talking about the performances and talks they attended. Bryonn Bain struck a cord at PUC both that continues to ring out and we look forward to hearing more from him and from all the artists on campus.

If you’d like to learn more about Bryonn Bain please visit his website at where you can learn amore about the projects he’s working on like his new album, Scared of the Dark, set to release in the next few months.

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