No one goes with you when you go under the knife. Overcoming illness is a solo act, a singular summoning of will. It's not surprising, then, that when poet Sekou Sundiata decided to recount the five years when kidney failure and a near-fatal accident transformed his life, he created a one-man show. That survival tale, blessing the boats, appears this weekend as part of the Walker Art Center's Out There Series at the Southern Theater.
Amazing grace: poet, actor, and kidney-transplant recipent Sekou Sundiata
"As a writer I spent most of my writing life looking out on the world," explains the 55-year-old Sundiata by telephone from the Bronx. "This is the first piece I had written that is so autobiographical. My friends would say 'Now you have a lot to write about,' but after the [kidney] transplant my hands would tremor. I couldn't stand the way my writing looked. I couldn't read a paragraph in the newspaper, let alone poetry. I started to lose faith in what the doctors were saying. But, just by a habit of mine, as I went through the whole process I kept a very attentive ear for everything going on around me."
The Harlem-born Sundiata, whose career has followed the currents of African American culture and the radical art of the 1960s and '70s, often pairs melodic poetry with soul, jazz, hip hop, and theater. But he shirks the term "spoken-word artist" as a "marketing category." Talking about his early peers, Sundiata describes being "invested in the idea that we were working out of ancient traditions....We felt we were grounded in something, but much of what we did argued with tradition." Today, Sundiata represents a tradition of his own, having inspired several contemporary artists, including former student Ani DiFranco (who today puts out his records on her Righteous Babe label).
For his first solo work, this untrained actor found himself looking beyond both poetry and the theater. "I used the style of standup comedians who reached through the humor and found something profound," he says, "[like] Richard Pryor." Later, Sundiata took the show to transplant surgeons, other organ recipients, and living donors. Ultimately, his greatest debt is to the five friends who offered to donate a kidney, an astonishing four of whom proved a match. "I was really moved by that," he says, "by the grace of it all."