By Roxana Rivera ’18
MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – On the first Saturday evening of winter term, as blizzardlike winds whipped through campus, a much warmer scene was unfolding inside McCullough Student Center. The sounds of finger-snapping and roars of laughter filled Wilson Hall as Middlebury College hosted the 10-year anniversary of Verbal Onslaught (VO), the beloved spoken-word tradition, as part of the Alumni of Color 2018 Summit. With music provided by Trenton, New Jersey-based DJ ItsJustAhmed, emcee Christopher de la Cruz ’13 infused the room with energy as he introduced featured alumni performers Clifford Alexander ’15, Sheyenne Brown ’09, Catarina Campbell ’11, Missan DeSouza ’14, Tim Garcia ’14, Debanjan Roychoudhury ’16, Andrew Snow ’15, and Sadé Williams ’14.5.
Andrew Snow ’15 opened the show as the first performer of the night. Snow says performing slam poetry was integral to his experience at Middlebury because of the support he felt as a performer. Snow said Verbal Onslaught felt almost therapeutic and became a second home where students could feel connected to one another.
“I think that’s what ‘verbal’ provided for a lot of students—an idea that they were not alone in feeling the emotions they feel,” said Snow. “And I think that’s really important at Middlebury, especially for people of color, which VO seemed to be full of, and sort of a place where people of color could go and perform.”
After initially performing as a first-year student, Tim Garcia says he grew to love and appreciate the intense moments as much as the funny moments. “It’s a weird social experiment where it’s fun and serious, but it’s also just a good time,” he said.
One after another, performers captivated the crowd, earning loud applause and even standing ovations at times. For many of the alumni, it was a night of reminiscence and nostalgia, standing before the mic as performers again, something most said they had not done since they graduated.
Missan DeSouza ’14 recalled that when she was a student, VO allowed her to interact with people who didn’t look like her. “Anyone who wanted to perform could perform,” said DeSouza. “We all bonded over that shared love for the art.”
Jennifer Herrera Condry, associate director of the Anderson Freeman Resource Center, says she started Verbal Onslaught in 2008 to provide a space for students of color who were already writing and performing poetry to express their experiences and thoughts as they navigated Middlebury and their extended environments. Herrera Condry, who grew up attending spoken events at Nuyorican Poets Café on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said she wanted to bring a taste of that artistic expression to Middlebury.
“I figured that if I was missing elements of my hometown, then students were probably missing it even more,” said Herrera Condry. The first local events took place at the former 51 Main in Middlebury.
One of Saturday’s performers, Sheyenne Brown ’09, said that “before VO, there was no platform for poets” and that there wasn’t a space carved out for them specifically.
Brown says she has not performed stand-alone poetry since her days at Middlebury and hadn’t realized how much she missed it until she walked out on the stage. “Hands visibly shaking, hoping I didn’t mess up my ‘punchlines’ and then the way it was received? It blew my mind,” said Brown. “Only art can do that for people.”
Saturday’s Verbal Onslaught reunion also welcomed current students Briana Garrett ’19 and Nia Robinson ’19. In a true open-mic spirit, audience member Charles Rainey ’19 also took the stage to perform his own work. The evening of spoken-word poetry was accentuated with performances by student-led ensembles Riddim World Dance Troupe and Evolution Dance Crew.
Photos by Todd Balfour