Public radio personality Al Letson tunes into Mobtown

State of the Re:Union Live

at the Theatre Project May 17-20

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As they travel around the country, Al Letson, a black man with dreadlocks, and Tina Antolini, a white woman with blond hair, have the kind of dynamic typical of partners on a cop show. But rather than hunting criminals or aliens, they are looking for that ineffable thing that makes every city different.

A few weeks ago, Antolini held a shotgun mic up to Ben Morgan, a member of Towson University’s debate team. A producer for the documentary-style show State of the Re:Union, distributed by National Public Radio, she wore headphones and occasionally looked down to check the levels on the field recorder hanging around her neck. Al Letson, the show’s host, nodded his head as Morgan mixed spoken word poetry with philosophy to call the very structure of debate into question. When Morgan finished his breathless performance, Letson gave him a high-five. “What’s up!” Letson said. “That’s spoken word. I came from spoken word.”

Known for multi-media works that blend the styles of slam poetry, spoken word performance, and theater, Letson became the star of State of the Re: Union when he won the Public Radio Talent Quest—public radio’s version of American Idol—in 2008, with a pilot episode of State called “Welcome to D.C.” The pilot—“a mixture of journalism, storytelling, and travelogue,” as Letson puts it—featured segments on the Shaw neighborhood, the Busboys and Poets Café, Dischord Records, Go-go music, and other features particular to that city.

Now State is producing an episode about Baltimore. With a limited season and cinematic, sound-rich production, State follows in the wake of a new wave of public radio shows like Radiolab, which, as an article in the New York Times Magazine put it, attempt to replicate “HBO’s success in building powerful cultural franchises that ignore the mores of traditional broadcasting.” This is possible because the internet has made the radio less ephemeral. Episodes of Radiolab, This American Life, and State of the Re:Union are available on smart phones, iPads, and computers at any time, whether the local NPR affiliate carries the shows or not. With this in mind, Antolini says, the pair seeks out the timeless rather than the timely. “We want it to be as evergreen as possible,” she says.

The Public Radio Talent Quest wanted to find new voices to bring into this “cultural franchise.” And the strategy seemed to work. After the pilot season—where, in addition to Washington, D.C., the team covered Detroit, Mich., Jacksonville, Fla. (Letson’s home), and Des Moines, Iowa—State was picked up by over 250 stations. The next two seasons took Letson and Antolini to 20 different towns and cities.

“It’s a reflection of America,” Letson says. “Not just where Al is comfortable or where Tina is comfortable. A white woman and a black man, we went to a Super Bowl party in Kansas. . .”

“In the middle of nowhere,” Antolini adds.

“And when we walked in it was like a record scratched. But we had interesting conversations. It is about going places where you are uncomfortable,” Letson says.

They smooth the way by creating a sketch of the show—and a stack of pre-interviews—before they ever leave home. When Letson comes up with an idea for a destination, Antolini and co-producer Laura Starecheski dive into their research. “The process is not the scientific method,” Antolini says. “When we decide to go to a place, I call everybody I can think of: journalists, non-profits. I don’t call politicians. No external motivations,” she says. “Instead I ask ‘What’s interesting? What doesn’t receive the attention it deserves? and ‘What would people not from there find surprising?’” After her initial reporting, Antolini begins doing pre-interviews and mapping out the show, so that their time on the ground can be as efficient as possible.

That research is what brought them to Towson’s debate team. One of Antolini’s sources mentioned the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS)—a group of young people who characterize themselves as a “roving think-tank” that seeks to transform Baltimore. Dayvon Love, a former award-winning member of the Baltimore Urban Debate League and Towson University’s team, is the president. He also, incidentally, made an unsuccessful bid for City Council last year. Legend has it that Love revolutionized debate at Towson by developing the techniques Ben Morgan is now using. His rich background in Baltimore made him a perfect candidate for State; Love became the central character for a segment in the Baltimore show. Other segments of the show focus on the Black Male Identity project—a local initiative to combat stereotypes about black men; Operation Oliver: The 6th Branch, a project in which veterans returning from active duty continue their service in a struggling local community; and a project that teaches knitting skills to inmates at the Jessup Correctional Institution.

Usually, once edits are completed, the show goes out over the airwaves and online, and State moves on to the next town. But this time around, the crew is doing something a little different. Having previously performed many of his own pieces—including Essential Personnel, Griot, Summer in Sanctuary, and Julius X—at Theatre Project, Letson considers Baltimore a second home. “I loooove this city,” he says in his intro to the show as The Wire’s theme song plays in the background. So this month Letson will enact a live performance of the Baltimore episode at Theatre Project.

“There is a movement within the cutting edge of public radio, taking it into live performance,” Antolini says. State of the Re:Union Live will mix the production value of contemporary public radio with video, live storytelling, and musical performance, including local beatbox maestro Shodekeh and producer, DJ, and MC Wendel Patrick. “We’re going to be performing a couple of the pieces I composed for the show,” Patrick says. Patrick is not new to radio, having worked with WYPR’s Aaron Henkin on The Signal special “Out of the Blocks.” As he did for that show, Patrick tagged along with the State crew while they conducted interviews in Baltimore so he could incorporate the audio into his composition.

Letson says the show will begin with a poem and music, including a live performance by Patrick. “It’s all going to be set up like a road trip that ends up back home in Baltimore.”

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