A flock of origami cranes dangled above the cluttered stage as Kashia Ellis-Taylor stepped up to the microphone. She pulled out her phone from the pocket of her rainbow speckled overalls and began to read aloud the poem on her tiny screen.
Much like its namesake, “Lightning” was quick. Immediately after she finished the poem, Ellis-Taylor began reading another piece she had written, leaving no space for applause.
She announced she would end with a series of poems that featured lines borrowed from “Hamilton” lyrics. The audience, which included many thespians, cheered at the mention of their favorite musical.
On Thursday evening, The Walking Theatre Project held its first ever open mic night at Kofenya. Twenty performers shared their poems, songs and stories with the Miami students and faculty in attendance.
The group, which uses the arts to inspire community activism, wanted to create a place for people to express themselves.
“We have always talked about it at every first meeting of the year,” said the Walking Theatre Project’s president, Maddie Mitchell. “This year we decided we’re actually going to do it.”
While the open mic night cost no money to attend, the Walking Theatre Project encouraged community members to bring household goods to donate to victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. A GoFundMe was also set up to collect monetary donations.
“We were seeing things on the news about how water bottles there cost $65,” Mitchell said. “That’s ridiculous. We wanted to do something to help the victims.”
With help from Miami’s Office of Community Engagement and Service, the Walking Theatre Project partnered with Matthew 25 Ministries to deliver soap, paper towels, toilet paper, shampoo and other cleaning supplies to people in Texas and Florida.
Mitchell wasn’t sure what to expect from the open mic night, but said she was stunned by the evening’s variety. In addition to several poets and musicians who played the keyboard, guitar or ukulele, acts ranged from a cappella Irish dancing to an interactive lesson in the fundamentals of beatboxing.
In addition to the supportive crowd that surrounded the stage, there were several Kofenya patrons pushed to the corners of the café, their heads buried in a book or laptop. When Victoria Slabinski played her cello, however, all but two studious souls had their eyes locked on her dancing bow. Even the baristas were lulled by the music, going as far as to wait between songs before using the blender.
While many of the performers were members of Miami’s theatre department, anyone was welcome to sign up for a time slot.
“I enjoyed most the people that we didn’t know,” said Rachael O’Reilly, the Walking Theatre Project’s vice president and emcee for the evening.
One such performer was first-year Fredrich Yeager, who made his slam poetry debut.
Racked with nerves by his first open mic night, he said he was oddly comforted by his sinus infection, which made it difficult for him to hear himself talk.
“I was much more nervous than I expected,” Yeager said. “I do mock trial, so I’m used to public speaking, but this was terrifying.”
In spite of his fears, Yeager performed “I’m Tired.” After building confidence, he returned to the stage later in the evening with two more intensely personal poems that lambasted Donald Trump and cis-normative violence.
In light of the evening’s success, Mitchell and O’Reilly said the Walking Theatre Project will likely organize another open mic night soon. In the meantime, the group will collect stories from veterans in order to write a play to honor their sacrifices, to be performed around Veterans Day in Uptown Park.
“Sometimes you have to start at home,” O’Reilly said. “We would not have a home without them.”
In this way, the Walking Theatre Project hopes to create more outlets for people to express themselves while supporting social activism within the Oxford community.