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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon

photo courtesy of the artist
Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon

There’s a lot you can do with a sense of rhythm, a way with words, and a knack for telling a good story, but you have to be willing to persevere. Allow Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon’s story to illustrate.

A Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, the award-winning poet and playwright — an associate professor of urban theater in Temple University’s theater department — has published a pair of anthropology texts, eight volumes of poetry, two spoken word albums, and has had about two-dozen plays produced, including 2010’s Shot! (Requiem for a Bullet), the first Temple Theater production invited to be presented at the Kennedy Center.

The Philadelphia native and Philadelphia High School for Girls alum started out as a journalist.

“I didn’t know that I could have a career as a [creative] writer,” said Williams-Witherspoon, who went on to major in journalism at Howard University, where she was also on the debate and forensics team and active in the performance poetry scene. “That wasn’t something that was widely taught, particularly as a Black writer. We ran across Lorraine Hansberry; we’d run across Jimmy Baldwin; I knew about James Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar and Claude McKay. But I didn’t know how they got to be that. So in my head, writing meant journalism, meant newspapers.”

After graduating from Howard, Williams-Witherspoon, just married, moved to Houston. She marshaled clips from her time as a reporter for The Hilltop, Howard’s student newspaper, and arranged for interviews with Houston’s prominent daily papers.

“The guy looked at my clips and peeled through my portfolio,” she recalled. “And then he looked up at me and said, ‘Howard University, that’s a negro school, right?’”

Williams-Witherspoon still laughs incredulously about that moment in 1980.

“When he called me a ‘negro,’ I was like ‘uh-oh, that’s not gonna workout.’”

But soon after, still in Houston, Williams-Witherspoon almost literally took a flyer on a longshot, answering an advertisement in a community paper looking for a director—for a play.

“I needed the job, so I applied— and I got it,” Williams-Witherspoon recalls. “I directed a cast of 17 in a musical called Where Were You in ’65 by Thomas Meloncon, and got bitten by the bug.

“So then, I had to somehow connect the love for writing, the love for poetry, the love for literature—and now drama. The rest is history; I started writing plays and acting and directing, and that’s where I am now.”

In a world of hyper-specialization, Williams-Witherspoon is a modern Renaissance woman; the accolades she’s received for work in multiple mediums—from a Pew Charitable Trust fellowship in script writing to the National Poetry Competition’s “Spirit of the World” award—only affirm this. But while the awards bring prestige and name recognition, they’re just a small part of a much larger footprint Williams-Witherspoon has left on the Temple University community over nearly 25 years.

Though anecdotal evidence would suggest her courses can be challenging, both academically and emotionally—it’s theater after all—she’s beloved by her students because she challenges them to cultivate the tools they already have within to become legit storytellers.

“Those moments that stick in your spirit and your heart and your soul, those are usually tied to a good story,” Williams-Witherspoon says. “So I ask [students] to think about their most memorable moments in life—whether it’s the happiest memory or the scariest memory or the saddest. If you can recreate that story; if you can capture that moment so that it no longer just has resonance for one individual, but now has resonance for a whole bunch of people, then I feel like I’ve succeeded.”

Where she’s unquestionably succeeded is liberating poetry from the one-dimensionality of the page. Like Whitman and the Beats and the founders of the Black Arts Movement, Williams-Witherspoon believes that poetry begs to be put to music, to be sung, recited, and chanted.

In those contexts, the poem’s best friend becomes a beat. And few classes of people know how to provide an accompanying, amplifying beat better than jazz musicians.

So it’s only natural, Williams-Witherspoon says, that there’s been so much overlap over the years between Philly’s performance poetry scene and its jazz scene.

“Coming up, when you would go into the various bars, there was always a musician—somebody playing the sax or a horn or a drum,” Williams-Witherspoon said of the so-called Po-Jazz Connection of the late ’80s and early ’90s, a vibrant cross-fertilization of poetry and jazz that routinely played out at places like Warmdaddy’s (Old City), Bacchanal (13th and South), Zanzibar Blue (basement of the Bellevue), and upstairs at Fairmount’s London Grille.

Jazz and poetry just clicked.

“I think it’s because both the poet as well as the musician are working with rhythm and beat. So there’s musicality in both the poem as well as the composition that’s being played. Once you find each other’s rhythm, it becomes this wonderful interplay of voices, and it’s a movement; it’s a symphony.”

During the Po-Jazz Connection’s heyday, recalls Williams-Witherspoon, you could walk into one of the aforementioned bars and find giants of the Black Arts Movement like Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka sharing a stage with local jazzers like Warren Oree’s Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble.

It was the creative process in the raw, with a high degree of improvisation and a low degree of curation.

“There was never any need for rehearsal; you just kind of went out there and did your thing,” says Williams-Witherspoon, who speaks nostalgically about once collaborating in this very manner with legendary jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers. “It’s almost reminiscent of what it would’ve been like in jazz clubs back in [Billie Holiday’s] day, when folks, extemporaneously, would come up and sing a riff or try a moment. And the poets did the same thing with the musicians. It was just wonderful— absolutely wonderful.”

The scene has changed somewhat, suspects Williams. “I don’t think we have the regular poetry scene like we used to have.”

Though, she concedes with a laugh, “I’m an O.G., an old-head; I don’t get out as much.”

Still, she’s committed to teaching the new generation the various elements of her craft(s); she hopes they become keepers of the flame. “Performance poets have to be fluid. They have to be malleable. They have to be able to alter their performance to fit any venue and any audience,” Williams-Witherspoon says in her naturally rhythmic manner of speaking. “The music has to be there, the blocking—all of it combines to make this unique theatrical event.

“As a teacher, my hope is that I’m communicating this to a whole new generation who will be carrying it on even when I’m not here.”

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.