In a city largely absent of activities and events related to African American culture, Springfield’s black residents have long suffered from the “there’s-nothing-to-do syndrome.” To cure their thirst for culture, many have adopted the habit of traveling to St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis for concerts, plays and comedy shows. But in recent years some are forgoing big city culture, choosing instead to remain in Springfield, basking in what has become a phenomenon — “Expressions in the Dark.”
For the past six years, on the first Friday of each month, The Network Group and JPEK Productions has hosted Expressions in the Dark — a venue allowing spoken word and aspiring musical artists a chance to showcase their talents. Some performers recite original dramatic poetry readings. Others belt out popular hits or original rhythm and blues, hip-hop, or rap tunes.
Feb. 5 marks Expressions’ seventh anniversary, and The Network Group and JPEK Productions will celebration with its annual anniversary themed show, “Expressions in the Red.” The event, held in the Arizona Room of the Route 66 Hotel from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., will feature local, regional and national poets, singers and musicians, some of whom have performed on Fox Television’s American Idol and HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. Along with “slamming” poets and singers, Expressions in the Red, hosted by Xplicit and Dj76Kid, will also include free champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries, as well as its customary hyped crowd all dressed in red to go along with the event’s theme.
Expressions’ regulars will see the return of Ron “Chill” Williams and Tony “DJ Tone” Muse — Expressions’ first host and deejay, as well as other local crowd favorites, such as Springfield poets A.D. Carson, Kim Connor, Will Mitchell, Misinterpretation, Butterfly, Eric Rivers, Joel King and RaChad Bradley, and Tebby Zalango, a Springfield singer, rapper and violinist.
Since its inception, Expressions in the Dark has provided platforms for dozens of artists. Some have been expressing their creativity through word and music since childhood, while others have begun performing at various events after being bit by the “spoken word bug” during Expressions’ open-mic segments. Most have been from Springfield or parts of the Midwest, while others have traveled from as far away as California and Georgia to have their voices heard. And while spoken word events have “blown up” in larger cities across the country, the word is that the atmosphere at Springfield’s spoken word shows is infectious and like no other.
“The vibe and the energy in Springfield is incredible,” says Chill Williams, a St. Louis resident who for the first year traveled to Springfield to host Expressions in the Dark. “This event is always well put together. They [The Network Group and JPEK Productions] really care about the art, and not just making money. The crowd there is really genuine and attentive. And, they respect the microphone,” added Chill, who is well-known on the spoken word circuit in St. Louis.
Carson agrees: “The crowd here just embraces you. The people are very receptive to new and different talent. There’s nothing like it. It’s not duplicated anywhere in the area.” Carson regularly performs a montage of poetry, lyrics and prose.
Kim Connor moved to Springfield from Champaign in 2004. Though she had penned a book of poetry, she had never read her work in public until she attended an Expressions in the Dark show. “The crowd and environment itself make you feel warm and welcome,” she said, adding that performing at Expressions in the Dark has given her the courage to read her poetry at other venues.
In its seven years, Expressions has indeed come a long way. In addition to the shows in Springfield, The Network Group and JPEK Productions hosts monthly shows in Chicago and Bloomington.
In September 2008, the groups launched Expressions in the Light, a spoken word show featuring the talents of high school students. “We noticed that some people were bringing their teenagers to Expressions in the Dark; however, it can be a bit risqué. So we thought that it would be a good idea to provide a show that is more appropriate for young people,” said Moore. “The kid’s really love it, and it gives them a chance to show their talents.”
While Expressions in the Light is currently on hiatus as the group searches for sponsors, the shows were well attended. Moore says that she often hears from many young people asking when it will return.
Last December, the groups launched “Expressions of PraiZe,” which featured spiritually-inspired poets, praise dancers, choirs and soloists. According to Moore, more than 75 people attended the show. “We weren’t exactly sure how people would respond. So we were a bit surprised to get as many people as we did. But anytime you put Jesus in something people are going to show up,” said Moore, adding that the next Expressions of PraiZe show is scheduled to take place at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church on Feb. 26.
Moore says that The Network Group and JPEK Productions’ goal is to expose Springfield to big-city culture on a different scale. “We really want to promote Midwest artists. There’s so much talent in Springfield, and the entire Midwest. But people just don’t know it because they don’t get the opportunities to be heard like people who live in larger cities. Expressions in the Dark gives them that opportunity.”
Spoken word is not the group’s only venture. In the past couple of years, The Network Group and JPEK Productions have sponsored a fashion show and several small plays. And they are currently working with a fashion designer to develop a clothing line, which is anticipated to be released in the next couple of years.
Contact Jolonda Young at email@example.com.
Admission to Expressions is the Red is $10 for those dressed in red or red and black, $15 for others. Tickets are purchased at the door.